Mass. doctor's prescription for homelessness

Dr. Jessie Gaeta's program to house the less fortunate reduced homelessness by 63 percent in Quincy, Massachusetts.
CBS News

The recession has left many Americans without a job and still more without a home. But it's getting better. The Labor Department said Thursday the number of Americans joining the line for unemployment benefits last week was the lowest in four years.

Homelessness is down as well. CBS News correspondent Seth Doane tells us how one doctor is helping to wipe it out.

Despite the troubled economy, the problem of long-term homelessness is actually decreasing -- down nationally 39 percent since 2005. A handful of communities are making even bigger strides with eradicating homelessness like Quincy, Massachusetts. CBS News correspondent Seth Doane has more on a startlingly simple idea.

Fifty-one-year-old Gordon Costa once stood on the other side of this food line for the homeless.

Costa: "I come here to sleep better at night."

Doane: "What do you mean by that?"

Costa: "Well, I try to give back what was given to me."

Alcoholism cost him his marriage, job and kids. He ended up at Father Bill's shelter in Quincy, Massachusetts.

"I took for granted having a wife," he admitted. "I took for granted having two beautiful kids and a nice house. To have it all pulled away was a little tough. 'How am I going to survive?' 'Where am I going to get my food from?' I'm unfortunately a diabetic -- 'where am I going to get my health insurance from?'"

When he was homeless, Costa's diabetes just got worse -- no surprise to Dr. Jessie Gaeta.

Doane: "You started working as a doctor with homeless populations. What challenges were you seeing for your patients at the time?"

Gaeta: "I think that people have a really hard time prioritizing their health needs over things like figuring out where you're going to sleep that night."

Dr. Gaeta realized the Boston Medical Center ER had become a revolving door for homeless patients.

" It wasn't until I had just a couple of patients housed," said Gaeta, "that I saw this turnaround in their health. Basically I was seeing that if I could write a prescription for keys to an apartment that that was going to do more to improve the health of the patient sitting in front me than the prescription I can write for anything else."

Homelessness resources: Father Bill's & MainSpring
Boston Healthcare for the Homeless
Mass. Housing and Shelter Alliance
National Alliance to End Homelessness

So in 2006, Dr. Gaeta started a program called Home and Healthy For Good with state funds. Its approach of providing housing first and then counseling for drugs and alcohol has helped Costa stay sober since shortly after moving into his apartment two years ago.

The program has helped reduce homelessness by 63 percent in Quincy and has also cut medical costs for formerly homeless people by more than two-thirds.

"It was astonishing that a year into this project, we saw such a decrease in medical costs, that we could basically more than afford to pay for the housing," said Gaeta.

Doane asked Costa how important was this home in pulling himself away from that place.

"It was important because I felt like life can get better," he answered.

Today Costa pays 30 percent toward the rent. Two-hundred square feet never felt so good.

"Got my own keys to my own apartment," he said. "It's all good."