[Hpn] What Is The Cost For Homelessness?
William Charles Tinker
Sun, 27 Feb 2005 07:24:52 -0500
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Cost of services hard to calculate
What's the cost of homeless-ness?
In Atlanta, it's $11 a day at a shelter, $53 a day in jail or $335 in a
In San Francisco, make that $28 for the shelter, $94 for the jail and $1,278
for the hospital stay.
What these raw numbers, compiled for the nonprofit Corporation for
Supportive Housing, illustrate is that the societal costs of homelessness
depend on the options we leave ourselves.
"While we know that nobody spends 365 days a year in a psychiatric hospital
or in a jail . . . what it shows is that being homeless can be very
expensive," says Lyn Hikida, a spokeswoman for the California-based
nonprofit that promotes permanent, low-cost housing for the homeless.
When it comes to serving the homeless, as with many things, the general rule
is you have to spend money in one place to save it in another.
Homeless people tend to get in trouble a lot, be it for public urination,
sleeping on park benches or pushing their belongings around in borrowed
shopping carts. Since a night in jail costs many times more than a night in
a shelter, it behooves government to keep homeless people out of the system.
That is why more than a dozen jurisdictions across the country have set up
"homeless courts" that divert nonviolent offenders to services rather than
"We want them to become productive members of society, and the homeless
court program is designed to do that," says William Hoch, an Oklahoma City
attorney who chairs the American Bar Association's commission on
homelessness and poverty. "If we keep heaping monetary fines on homeless
individuals, then that's a system that's broken, and it won't ever be fixed.
If they can't afford a place to live, then how do we expect them to pay a
But in the complex calculus of serving the homeless, the known costs must
often be weighed against unknown benefits.
In a landmark study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania tried to
assess the cost-effectiveness of providing housing to New York's chronically
The study found that, before placement, a homeless person with severe mental
illness used about $40,000 in services a year. Finding that person housing
reduced those costs by more than $16,000, but the cost of living space
raised net spending by about $1,000.
"Basically, providing housing to chronically homeless people with mental
illness is a nearly break-even investment," says Dennis Culhane, one of the
study's authors. "And we can either spend lots of public resources
maintaining people in homelessness, or we can spend nearly the same amount
and have much better quality of life for them, for us and a better outcome
The question becomes: How much is society willing to spend?
The Veterans Administration spends an average of $18,000 a year on mentally
ill vets through two programs that target the homeless. Dr. Robert
Rosenheck, director of the Veterans Administration's Northeast Program
Evaluation Center, tried to determine the benefits of providing housing
vouchers for homeless veterans in addition to the other services.
Rosenheck thought he might find a significant decrease in homeless days and
services used. But for the additional $2,000 a year the vouchers cost, the
result was only a "modest" 35 percent drop in days homeless.
"As a scientist, I am forcing myself to tell you the cold truth, which is it
is sadly not true that for an expenditure of a few thousand dollars, that we
can make people healthy and save money," he says. "That's the dream . . .
but my study didn't show that."
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