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I heard this morning from an “ecstatic” Brian Maienschein, the United Way’s commissioner for the Plan To End Chronic Homelessness, with some news on a program he’s been talking about for more than a year.

The program will identify 25 homeless people who are frequent users of emergency or government services — 25 expensive residents — and match them with supportive housing. The county will provide the services, the city will provide the housing and the United Way will sponsor the individuals’ case managers, Maienschein said.

Here’s the concept: Those 25 individuals suck up a disproportionate amount of taxpayer dollars by frequently visiting the emergency rooms and not having insurance to cover the cost. They might often get arrested for urinating on the sidewalks or for abusing alcohol in public and wind up in court — more resources to prosecute and process them. They might be the heaviest users of emergency mental health care and the transportation and outreach that goes with it.

By housing those individuals and proactively matching them with a caseworker, and with medical and mental help, Maienschein said he hopes the public cost of keeping that person stable will drop dramatically.

The annual cost of chronic homelessness to taxpayers is anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000 per person, Maienschein said. He hopes intervention efforts, housing and supporting those people would drop that cost to less than $50,000 a year.

Maienschein said the city and the county have committed to housing and providing services for these first 25 individuals for three years.

The former city councilman said he didn’t have a final estimate for the cost to all parties but the United Way will pitch in an estimated $1.5 million over three years, he said.

The services for the top 25 are slated to begin by the end of this year.

First the county will provide a list of the top 25 users based on emergency room visits and other frequently used services. Then those names will be matched up with data from other agencies like St. Vincent de Paul, Alpha Project and the District Attorney’s Office in order to paint a complete picture of how much the individuals have cost the region previously. Then, once they’re supported and housed for the next three years, the United Way will have costs to compare.

Maienschein expects the program will be especially popular among hospitals, who are obligated to treat people regardless of their ability to pay for services. He said he hopes the hospitals will actually move to fund future rounds of the program once they see the savings brought by supportive housing.

This program is the biggest project Maienschein has done since taking the commissioner’s post at the United Way in January 2009. The region’s chronic homelessness plan has been around since 2006 but hasn’t produced the kind of dramatic changes proponents promised when the city and 16 other regional cities bought into the plan. Maienschein thinks this frequent users program will be an important signpost for the plan.

“This is really huge,” Maienschein said. “I’m just ecstatic. I just feel like I’m walking on the clouds.”

He spoke a bit about the idea at a meeting I went to last August. Here’s a snippet of what he said then:

“If you’re not moved by some kind of moral or ethical reason, at least you should be moved by an economic reason,” he said. “If we can do it with that population — the most difficult of the difficult — I think we can get people in San Diego to see what a difference can be made.”

— KELLY BENNETT

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