Mental health experts say the success of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to spend $900 million on housing for people who have mental illness will hinge on a few key factors: adequate staffing, long-term housing options and enough housing units to serve the many people who need them.

Hochul unveiled her plan in her State of the State address on Tuesday. Her office has yet to share many details, but a 277-page policy booklet released Tuesday briefly outlines Hochul’s proposal to create 3,500 additional units statewide for people who need mental health care, including:

  • 500 one-room apartments that would provide intensive services to people experiencing the most serious mental illnesses and who are most at risk of homelessness
  • 900 “step down” units, which would help people transition from more intensive care into community-based living
  • 600 licensed apartments for people who need some services but not 24/7 help
  • 1,500 permanent supportive housing units for people who have less severe needs but still need some assistance

The new sites will add to the 21,000 scattered-site supportive housing units and more than 10,150 supported single-room occupancy units already funded by the state Office of Mental Health.

Several experts and mental health advocates celebrated Hochul’s plan, calling it “transformational” and a “great start” to help people get into homes and receive mental health services in the community. But some said the number of units falls far short, given that an estimated 15,000 people experiencing serious mental health conditions in New York do not have homes, according to the governor’s report. The report did not say how it defined serious mental illness.

Multiple experts said they were worried that many of the housing units will be temporary, instead of offering a more permanent solution. Just 1,500 of the 3,500 units will be considered permanent, while the rest will offer transitional shelter until people can move into a more permanent space.

“The problem with transitional or temporary placements is that the likelihood of people staying is low,” said Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the New York Coalition for the Homeless.

“The optimal situation would be providing a permanent placement in an apartment for every homeless person with serious mental illness and delivering high-quality mobile mental health services to them,” she said.

Glenn Liebman, CEO of the New York State Mental Health Association, said the state currently lacks the mental health workforce to sufficiently staff these programs.

“In order for this to work, we need to make sure we have the workforce that can provide the services and supports that are needed,” said Liebman.

“Right now it would be a challenge.”

Programs resembling the one Hochul seems to be proposing have popped up across the country, from Maine to Oregon and Florida to Tennessee, often with measurable success. Studies have found that supportive housing can cut spending on mental health services and reduce participants’ interactions with the criminal justice system. Gothamist looked into three examples to see what has worked well and what lessons New York can learn as it expands its supportive housing program.

Denver

In 2016, Denver launched an initiative that provided a permanent housing subsidy and other services to several hundred homeless people who also had regular encounters with the legal and emergency health systems. A five-year scientific study by the Urban Institute found that participants spent much more time in housing than a control group — an average of 560 more days over three years. The majority of participants also remained in stable housing long term: 86% after one year, 81% after two years and 77% after three years. Police interactions also dropped, with participants in supportive housing having eight fewer contacts and four fewer arrests than their counterparts not in supportive housing. Participants stayed in jail for an average of 38 fewer days during the three years after they entered supportive housing. The time they spent in city-funded detoxification facilities also dropped by 65% in those three years. Researchers did not uncover any statistically significant difference in participants’ use of emergency medical services.

Houston

Houston has permanently housed over 25,000 people since 2012 and reduced homelessness in the city by 63%, according to the Houston-based nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless. The program was based on a housing model pioneered in New York City in 1992, which prioritizes providing permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness without requiring them to participate in rehab or treatment programs to qualify for or retain homes. The business website Smart Cities Dive reported that over 90% of people placed in permanent housing through the initiative have remained housed for more than two years.

Utah

Utah’s Strategic Plan on Homelessness works off a model similar to Houston’s. Nearly 95% of Utah’s homeless individuals tracked from 2017 to 2020 who were provided permanent housing through the program remained housed over that period, according to a report from the Utah State Legislature. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that chronic homelessness was also reduced by 50% specifically in Utah County, which does not have a homeless shelter, between 2019 and 2022, based on a list service providers keep of everyone experiencing homelessness in the county.