Fighting homelessness: The cost of homelessness

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April 11, 2011
By: Cathy ten Broeke
Cathy ten Broeke
This is the story of “Joe.” Joe was arrested 103 times in four years. He was homeless, significantly developmentally delayed and living with a serious and persistent mental illness. And he was writing on walls all over Downtown. The police would arrest Joe for graffiti, he would go to court, he would serve his time, and he would do it all over again. At least 103 times.  

In early 2008, as part of our initiative to end homelessness, a new street outreach team worked with Joe and helped him into housing. During his first year in housing, Joe was arrested only once. He went in front of the Hennepin County judge and the judge asked, “Where have you been?!” Joe explained that he was now in housing and working with the outreach team. The judge sent him out of court and back to his home. Joe’s life is significantly improved. The Downtown community’s life is significantly improved. And we are all saving a bundle of money. Each time Joe was arrested, booked and spent a night in jail, it cost local taxpayers $500. That is more than $50,000 — without taking into account court costs and the cost of graffiti removal. The cost of homelessness is high.

A couple of years ago, Hennepin County did a study to identify the highest users of public systems, such as jail and shelter. The idea was to identify the people who were experiencing homelessness and who were also high users of other expensive public systems.  

What they found is that there were 266 people who used more than 70,000 nights in a combination of jail, shelter and detox over five years. Hennepin County taxpayers spent $4.2 million dollars on these 266 people and got no results. The folks were still in jail, shelter or detox. With a modest private investment, the strategy shifted. Instead of allowing these individuals to cycle through the system, the goal became to provide housing and services.

Nearly 70 of the top 100 most frequent users of these systems are now in housing. A preliminary evaluation showed that after one full year in housing, local taxpayer costs associated with each person reduced by an average of $13,000 per year. Ending homelessness is cost-effective.

The cost of homelessness is perhaps highest, however, for children and youth. Nearly 50 percent of all people who are homeless in our community are children and youth. They are in schools — distracted, often hungry, and unable to concentrate. They are trying to do their homework in loud and crowded shelters or in abandoned homes without heat or running water. They are prostituting themselves and bouncing from couch to couch, bed to bed. These children and youth are paying the cost of homelessness now as they struggle to “fit in” and we will all pay later when they are not educated, employed and productive.

Earlier this year, when the talk at the Legislature was about “reform,” I felt cautiously optimistic. For four years we have been ending homelessness by focusing on system reform. We are being more effective and more efficient. We are also increasing the chance that children will graduate from high school and even go to college. We are decreasing teen pregnancy. We are building a better workforce. We are decreasing unnecessary health care costs.  

And in many, many instances, we are saving public dollars. Housing stability is the key to the success of most of these goals — the goals we all have as a society. Ending homelessness is not only the right thing to do for families and individuals; it makes good public policy sense.

Yet, the programs that make this work possible are the very ones on the chopping block at the Capitol. Whatever issue you care most about, whether it’s improving educational outcomes, reducing disparity, curbing teen pregnancy, reducing health care spending, shoring up mental health care or improving our future workforce, housing stability should be a top concern. Without housing, the rest of our goals remain out of reach.

Cathy ten Broeke is the project coordinator for the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. For more information go to headinghomehennepin.org or e-mail Cathy ten Broeke at cathy.ten.broeke@co.hennepin.mn.us.