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A Crucial Lifeline for Opioid Recovery: Supportive Housing

State and local governments should devote a substantial share of the billions in opioid settlement funds to get victims of the epidemic housed in settings where they can get the help they need to recover.

As you read this, tremendously large opioid settlement dollars are becoming available. Right now, dozens of states and hundreds of local governments are determining how to spend their shares of the $30 billion in combined settlement funds from Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family, Johnson & Johnson and major drug distributors intended to address the impact of the opioid epidemic.

The awful tragedy and harm of hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths and millions of addictions obviously cannot be undone by payouts. But when used properly and by centering a substantial share of the new resources on the people and communities most at risk, the funds could change the trajectory of the opioid epidemic.

Each state and locality will naturally use the settlement dollars to meet a unique set of needs. But from California to Connecticut, housing — and specifically supportive housing — must be a key part of the response to this crisis. Housing is a lifeline for people who are experiencing or recovering from substance abuse disorders. The threat of losing an affordable home can cause people in recovery to relapse, and people experiencing homelessness often cannot even begin the recovery process.

Supportive housing combines affordable housing with intensive services to help people who struggle with chronic physical or mental health issues, including people experiencing opioid and other forms of addiction. Not only does supportive housing help people who are experiencing these issues get a stable place to live, but it also has an unparalleled track record of success when it comes to keeping people housed, as well as helping people struggling with addiction.

In a study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, 91 percent of people who participated in a supportive housing program were housed permanently – either in supportive or nonsupportive housing – after 12 months, compared to just 28 percent of those who did not receive supportive housing. Another study, from the Denver Housing First Collaborative, found an 82 percent drop in visits to detox centers for people in supportive housing compared to control groups. Supportive housing also decreases reliance on shelters, emergency rooms and prison systems, reducing the cost to taxpayers and creating better lives in the process.

Using settlement dollars to support housing initiatives wouldn’t be unique to the opioid crisis. In the wake of the 2008 recession, New York state’s attorney general won several settlements from major banks for their roles in the subprime mortgage crisis, and in turn invested the funding into several essential pathways, including direct homeowner assistance as well as more holistic strategies to strengthen the communities most impacted by the foreclosure crisis. The attorney general’s office partnered with my organization, Enterprise Community Partners, and other housing organizations to develop programs to ensure that vulnerable neighborhoods are more resilient to economic downturns.

The impact was transformative: Cities and towns across the state benefited from anti-displacement innovations, reverse-mortgage foreclosure prevention, fair-housing enforcement and more. Deploying the opioid settlements in a way that includes housing as part of a comprehensive response for the people and communities most affected by this crisis could create a similarly far-reaching and long-term impact.

New York has already established supportive housing as one potential avenue for some of its opioid settlement funds. Every state and locality receiving settlement funds should do the same or go further, creating new programs and funding mechanisms to permanently fund supportive housing programs beyond this one-time windfall. If states are serious about using these settlement dollars to directly benefit those who have been hurt by opioid manufacturers, there is no better way to do so.

Out of the tragedy of the opioid epidemic, there is a chance to make real, lasting change. Including supportive housing as a key part of the solution will help people who continue to face the impacts of the crisis and create a lasting infrastructure that can ensure it never returns.

Priscilla Almodovar is president and chief executive officer of Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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