Let’s consider the true cost of homelessness

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Here’s some great news for the pragmatic idealists out there: It is cheaper to provide housing and support to assist someone out of homelessness than it is to leave them on the street.

In case you’re a bit behind on a decade of data, here are just a few examples.

Denver’s Housing First Collaborative reported a cost-benefit analysis in 2006 showing saving of $31,545 per participant over a 24-month period for expenses such as emergency room visits, outpatient medical treatment, detox stays and incarceration when someone goes from homeless to housed with the right supports.

Just last year, a study out of Oregon revealed health care costs declined by an average of 55 percent within one year of someone formerly homeless moving into a supportive housing program. The 59 people in the study who were on Medicaid created a cost reduction to the state of greater than three-quarters of a million dollars. (Integrating Housing & Health; The Center for Outcomes Research & Education, Portland, Ore., 2013.)

Data show not only cost savings to taxpayers, but overall improvement in the health status and housing stability of people in the programs. We could effectively impact the fact that some 5,000 youth experiencing homelessness die across our country each year because of assault, illness or suicide.

Locally, the city of Colorado Springs calculates the cost to serve one person experiencing chronic homelessness as $57,760 per year. That includes medical treatment, police intervention, incarceration and emergency response. Costs drop dramatically, up to as much as $30,000 annually, when someone moves into supportive housing. (The Initiative to End Homelessness in Colorado Springs, 2014.)

Money and lives are saved by putting a roof overhead, which immediately cuts high-risk traumas such as physical abuse and sexual assault and provides sound footing to begin the intricate work of addressing issues such as mental illness and addiction.

To be sure, affordable, stable housing is an essential point on the compass when mapping solutions to homelessness. But relying on housing only to solve the problem is like sending someone on a solo journey to the Boundary Waters Wilderness in a canoe with no paddle; tough to stabilize, and hard to get anywhere.

People usually don’t lose their place to live because of character flaws or bad choices. People become homeless because we get caught in the whirlpool of poverty or the currents of addiction, abuse and mental illness without a sturdy paddle or enough lifelines along the shore to pull ourselves out.

People usually don’t lose their place to live because of character flaws or bad choices.

This shoreline in El Paso County is ours to reckon with. About 70 percent of people who are now the unsheltered homeless in our area were once living here housed. People like you and me who came up against the lack of affordable housing combined with an employment market where some of the fastest-growing industries are in the lowest-paying jobs.   

In May, El Paso County and the city of Colorado Springs released major findings from a new affordable housing needs assessment.

Those figures indicate that for very low-income households, there are only 22 available affordable housing units for every 100 renters.

So, even when employed, a place to live is far from a sure thing.

Most people can navigate their way out of homelessness, but it’s unlikely to happen without help. While El Paso County is home to many great nonprofit organizations working more collaboratively than ever before, the fact is that at last count there were 269 people without shelter on a random January night while there were only 11 emergency beds open.

Creating solutions requires involvement and investment from across the private, public and nonprofit sectors. We must approach it from many angles including creating more affordable housing, emergency shelter beds and warm meals, training professionals and volunteers as nonjudgmental counselors who can relate to people where they are, improving timely access to health care, and working with businesses to support job and education links.

There are many causes, and so ending homelessness for one person doesn’t mean another might not fall into the current.

But we have the vision to think upstream, the know-how to throw a lifeline now, and the compassion to create continuity of care across the community that lifts more people out before the steep falls.

We can all play a role in creating safe portages on the journey out of homelessness, and for far less than it costs to remain in the whirlpool.

Shawna Kemppainen is executive director of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, an agency serving homeless youth.

One Response to Let’s consider the true cost of homelessness

  1. You go Shawna! Keep fighting the good fight – so glad you referenced that Oregon article I sent you. Even the citizens of Utah have figured out this problem, now is the time for Colorado Springs to solve it – the resources and will is there! Keep at it!

    Matt Payne
    June 19, 2014 at 5:06 pm