Homelessness: Housing First Saves Money

By Peter Gorski

Utah, a fiscally conservative, Republican state, estimates it costs $19,208 annually, including jail and health costs, to care for each chronically homeless person.

In 2005, the state decided to start offering housing unconditionally to those experiencing chronic homelessness because it was both more humane and cheaper. It cost the state $7,800 a year to house and provide a case worker to a formerly homeless person, or $11,408 less on average than when that person was sleeping outdoors or in shelters. By 2015, the state had cut the number of those experiencing chronic homelessness by 91% through its Housing First strategy (the state still has a lot to do to end homelessness overall, however).

Housing First is a simple model to understand: provide everyone with stable housing immediately, without any preconditions to qualify for the program. As Utah and other places have shown, it’s also a pragmatic solution that works, both for the homeless and taxpayers.

Our Wisconsin Revolution-La Crosse, with support from professional housing advocates and social workers, recently launched a campaign for a ‘Housing First’ program in La Crosse (view and sign the petition here). While there is of course a strong moral argument to push for an end to homelessness, Housing First is also a pragmatic solution for public budgets.

Why it works

Housing First means providing everyone with stable housing immediately, without any preconditions to qualify for the program. In addition, Housing First provides wrap-around services to participants, like drug addiction treatment, mental health services, general health care, and job training and placement assistance. However, Housing First does not require participation but takes a harm reduction approach to homelessness, removing punishment from the equation.

This may seem counterintuitive to many, but providing unconditional housing and allowing people experiencing homelessness to establish a sense of safety and stability has been shown time and again to be the most effective way for them to deal with their concomitant issues. People experiencing homelessness are often dealing with severe trauma, abuse, and health issues that they have not had the support or resources to work through. Moving in and out of shelters daily, without a place to call their own with a sense of permanence, and requiring them to go cold turkey to obtain safety does not provide the necessities to deal with these issues.

It is important to note that Housing First is not a plan to provide large, open rooms for people to sleep in overnight, kicking them out in the morning to prep for the next night and cramming everyone together. Housing First provides private, 24/7 housing for families and individuals, giving them safety from both the outdoors and each other, where needed. People experiencing homelessness experience sexual assault and violence at a much higher rate than the general public. Housing First provides the safety that all people deserve.

Dollars and cents

Here is the part where Housing First moves from a great treatment plan to a no-brainer, and again it may be counterintuitive to many: Housing First consistently saves cities and states money. Chronic homelessness results in people being consistently policed and moved around by local authorities, and often arrested. People experiencing homelessness also often end up in the emergency room, which is extremely costly. Clearly, these individuals don’t have the money or insurance coverage to keep up with health issues, and they don’t have funds to pay for ambulance rides or emergency care. These costs add up and, since Housing First is the most effective treatment, it greatly reduces these costs.

New York City has shown savings of $10,000 a year for each homeless person housed. Seattle and Boston have also both shown that a Housing First policy reduces homelessness and save money as well. Why would we choose to pay more tax dollars to keep people suffering on the streets, untreated?

A safer, more productive community

Hopefully by now you are on board with a program that heals and houses people and saves lives. But if you need more convincing, housing and rehabilitating people experiencing homelessness provides more good that is not measured in the budget. Helping people become independent, functioning members of our community will be a boon to our economy. As it stands, people experiencing homelessness are often unemployed (although many also have jobs) and don’t have the opportunity or stability to contribute to the public good in traditional ways. Implementing Housing First will make it easier for people to find work and contribute to our overall output as a community. Many who have experienced these hardships also become advocates for those still fighting for a better life.

Over and over again in La Crosse, we run into the issue of homeless encampments popping up. The city time and again runs them off, tears down their communities, and the cycle starts again. People with nowhere else to go often congregate in public parks, making these spaces feel less safe to some residents. Just this past summer, tensions were high in Cameron Park and resulted in police activity and arrests. Why are we wasting these officers’ time policing this population when it would be cheaper, safer, and healthier for everyone involved to house them?

A question of priorities

With the moral, financial, and social good all weighing in favor of Housing First, to not pursue this policy would be a mistake by our city and county leaders. With the evidence we have, to rule against Housing First would mean our leaders are prioritizing punishment and a “bootstraps” mentality that has been proven not to work, over the public good.

Take action: Sign or share the Our Wisconsin Revolution-La Crosse Housing First petition to local leaders. Link here.

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