▶ Watch Video: Addressing the ordeal of homelessness

Pedro has grown used to life on the streets, but he may never get used to being overlooked: “Excuse me, could you tell me – excuse me, excuse me, can you tell me the time? And they just pass you by and they just go like that [waves hand in air]. And people out there have no idea that it is okay to say, ‘No.'”

The story of homelessness is really lots of different stories, as told by people interviewed by “Sunday Morning” at The Bowery Mission in New York City.

David:  “I don’t have family; my mother’s dead, father’s dead.”
Kenny: “I got sick, wound up losing my work, and everything.”
Joseph: “You just worry about staying alive, you know?”

The need for help is obvious.

Yvette: “I can’t stand out here no more.”
Mahindranah: “It’s very tough.”
Lenn: “My life is a nightmare.”

And yet, the problem seems stubbornly hard to solve.

The Bowery Mission has served New York City’s homeless and hungry since the 1870s,

CBS News

Mike Coffman, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado, wanted to try something different. “We’re all confronted with the extraordinary challenges,” he said. “This was really a way in which I felt that I could understand it better.”

Coffman said he wanted to immerse himself in homelessness for a week.

Correspondent Kelefa Sanneh asked, “What kind of ground rules did you set for yourself?”

“Don’t bring any money or access to money,” Coffman said. “Don’t bring any food. So, I had a backpack, I had a sleeping bag. Extra pair of socks, and the clothes I had. And that was it.”

He also carried a cell phone which served, he said, as a kind of panic button, as well as a way to reach out to the local CBS station.

Sanneh asked, “Why not do what most mayors would do? Maybe commission some reports, have some meetings?”

“It seems like a lot of the things we’re trying are not really working,” Coffman replied. “This was an opportunity for me to sit down, side-by-side, with people experiencing homelessness, and talk to them, not as a policy-maker, but really as one of them.”

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman lived among the homeless for a week as “Homeless Mike.”

CBS News

And after eating and sleeping alongside some of his homeless constituents, he talked with KCNC reporter Shaun Boyd, who asked, “This is not about a lack of shelter?”

“It absolutely is not,” Coffman replied. “It is a lifestyle choice. And it is a very dangerous lifestyle.” 

Coffman told Sanneh, “We’re not going to solve the problems for people with addictive disorders. We’re not going to solve the people that have mental health challenges. But we will help those that have economic challenges in terms of being able to afford stable housing.”

Mary Cunningham, vice president of metropolitan housing and communities policy at the Urban Institute, has been studying homelessness for more than 20 years. She said, “I just think that we have to move away from the deserving/undeserving paradigm, and really work towards, what does the evidence show actually works?

“Homelessness has been with us for a long time. It increased significantly in the 1970s, and we responded by building shelters.”

On any given night, more than half a million people live in shelters and on the streets. But, Cunningham said, the shelter system only manages the problem: “Shelters weren’t really getting people back to where they needed to be, and that’s in housing. And so, in the 1990s, early 2000s, there was a response to homelessness that was more focused on housing.”

The approach, called “Housing First,” reverses the traditional model. Cunningham said, “We would say, ‘Hey, let’s help you get a job. We can help get you some substance-use counseling. But you need to do all of those things first.’ We really used housing as a reward, and it didn’t work, quite frankly.”

Why not? “Because it’s so hard to do those things – get a job, work on your mental health problems – when you’re literally sleeping in a tent. So, instead of giving housing second, third or fourth, they gave housing first. And that showed to be really successful.”

Cunningham measures that success by seeing how many Housing First residents remain in their new homes over time. Her answer: 80 percent. That was the finding in Cunningham’s study of a program in Denver, which is next door to Aurora, where Mayor Mike Coffman did his own on-the-ground research.

Sanneh asked Coffman, “Why is it that you think that the so-called Housing First model can’t work more broadly?”

“I understand the notion that housing is so basic to the human condition that if you address that not in a temporary way but in a permanent way, that the other things will fall in place,” Coffman said. “I just don’t think that that’s realistic. We’re not Washington, D.C. We have to have balanced budgets.”

Cunningham said the problem is perception.

Sanneh asked, “If I’m a politician, I would think that one of my first reactions is, ‘This sounds expensive.'”

“Housing provides really significant returns on investment,” Cunningham replied. “So, for example, let’s take people who are experiencing chronic homelessness. They’re moving in and out of shelter. They’re moving in and out of emergency rooms. They’re having interactions with police. All of those emergency services really cost a lot of money.”

With Housing First, one study by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found emergency room visits dropped by 53%, arrests and incarcerations dropped by about 58%, and the use of emergency shelters essentially ended.

Also, participants’ mental health symptoms decreased by 35%, and the number of residents using any drugs fell 37%.

Perhaps the most important finding: Since the Department of Veterans Affairs embraced the Housing First program a decade ago, veteran homelessness has been cut in half.

James Santiago served in the military for six years. “The moment I enlisted, that started my path on homelessness,” he said. “I got out of the Marine Corps in ’89, wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until 2010.”

“That’s a long time,” Sanneh said.

“Didn’t know why I was drinking as much as I was.”

After living in shelters for three years, Santiago was placed in a Housing First program. He has been living in a fully-stocked studio apartment since 2012.

In New York City, where homelessness rates are among the highest in the country, Jericho Project is one of the organizations that provides housing and services, like substance abuse and career counseling, for veteran and other homeless populations. 

Adriana Rodriguez-Baptiste, who oversees programs at Jericho Project, gave Sanneh a tour of one residence. 

Adriana Rodriguez-Baptiste, chief program officer for the Jericho Project, showed Kelefa Sanneh one of her organization’s residential units.

CBS News

Sanneh asked her, “The people who live in this facility, do they pay rent?”

“They do. They pay rent. They pay one-third of their income.”

“And if they have no income?”

“We help them find income,” she said.

The Urban Institute’s Mary Cunningham said it’s going to take more advocacy to make Housing First widely available.

Sanneh asked, “Is part of the work convincing everyday people, everyday taxpayers that it’s actually a good idea, while they’re paying their rent every month or paying their mortgage every month, to give free housing to some other people, some of whom might have problems?”

“Yeah. Part of it is there are myths that people choose to be homeless,” Cunningham said, “and I don’t think the evidence bears that out. When you offer someone a key to an apartment, they take that choice.  The problem is, is people just don’t have good choices.”

At The Bowery Mission, Kenny told us, “They know what the solution is. They’d rather them die in the street.”

That, said Pedro, “makes me cry.”

Most people think of homelessness as something that happens to someone else. “I always thought they were a victim of their own poor choices,” Joseph said.

People who experience it firsthand still can’t quite believe it:

Lenn: “I’m doing the right things to get somewhere, and I ain’t going no damn where.”
Yvette:  “I’m really trying my best to be something.”
David: “All I need’s a little room or a kitchenette.”

For some of them, a place to live doesn’t seem like the solution to all their problems, but it does seem like a start.

Joseph: “My biggest hope is that the day’ll come that, when I first wake up in my apartment, I’m not worried that I’m still on the street. That I wake up and I’ll know I’m at home.”

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Lauren Barnello.