William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 24 Oct 2005 09:12:30 -0400

Homeless advocates call for affordable housing

Ben Kieckhefer


A lack of affordable housing and emergency services are driving up the cost
of serving the area's homeless for governments, hospitals and social service
agencies, a coalition of those groups said this week.
While the overall cost of homelessness is difficult to quantify, the tab
certainly runs into tens of millions of dollars, police and hospital
officials said.
Reno police Officer Patrick O'Bryan, who works downtown coordinating the
city's crisis intervention team, tracked three chronically homeless people
for a year and said costs can grow very quickly.
A person can buy a bottle of vodka for $2, drink himself or herself into a
stupor and collapse on the sidewalk, sparking a wide-ranging and expensive
emergency response.
An ambulance will be called that costs $700 to take the person to the
hospital. The emergency room detoxification process can cost up to $2,000.
Trauma work for head injuries from the fall and lab work for pre-existing
conditions can cost up to $6,500. Additional detox work outside the ER can
cost even more, and that $2 bottle of vodka can lead to a $10,000 bill the
client can't pay.
One of the people O'Bryan followed for a year went through this cycle
repeatedly and ran up a hospital bill of $120,000 while spending half of
that year in jail. Treating homeless people for the symptoms of their
problem and not the root cause has proven to be a failure and defeats the
purpose, O'Bryan said.
"It's like prescribing sun screen for skin cancer. It's about the same
thing," he said.
Representatives from Saint Mary's Regional and Washoe medical centers said
they track how much care they give to uninsured or underinsured patients,
but it's hard to tell how many are homeless.
"Knowing that that person is homeless is a really difficult thing," said
Susan Speth-Briganti, corporate relations supervisor for Saint Mary's.
She and Chris Bosse of Washoe Med said homeless patients often provide only
partial personal information or are embarrassed to say they're homeless, so
they don't really track it statistically.
Finding affordable or subsidized housing for people trying to escape or
prevent homelessness can be extremely difficult. When housing is not found,
people end up under a much more expensive roof.
Washoe County specialty courts coordinator Sheila Leslie said 31 percent of
the mental health court's clients are homeless or in state-supported
It costs an average of $34.87 per person per day for that state-supported
housing, but the costs to the public can grow quickly if they go elsewhere.
If the person ends up in jail, that price escalates to $83.51 per day, and
one day at the state's mental health hospital in Sparks will cost an average
of $504.
"We absolutely have to have more housing options," said Leslie, also a
Democratic assemblywoman from Reno.
Jeanne Marsh, director of Washoe County's children's services division, said
many legal regulations prevent families from getting subsidized housing.
Such barriers to housing include limits on how many children can live in an
apartment, criminal or substance abuse history in the parents, rent deposits
and credit history.
Marsh said it costs about $280 per day to keep a child under 2 years old at
the Kids Kottage, a county-funded shelter for children. In some cases those
children could be released back to their parents, if they found stable
"It's a telling story," she said.
Bob Rusk, a former Washoe County commissioner and chairman of the task force
writing the federally guided 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, said
the committee should keep issues of housing at the forefront.
"We've got a monster problem that we've got to deal with, and it seems to
keep coming down to housing, housing, housing," Rusk said.