Maybe it seems like homelessness is a superficial wound that affects only the very poorest people while the rest of us thrive, unscathed. But, actually, homelessness infects society to its core:
- It strains our economic resources (spot-treatment for homelessness is expensive).
- It disintegrates our quality of life (it sucks to encounter the street-homeless whose very existence forces us to confront systemic failures and random inequities).
- And it challenges our very identity as caring individuals. If we were caring people, wouldn’t we do something to end homelessness and uphold the human right of housing?
Fortunately, homelessness is preventable, treatable and curable. And ending homelessness is cost-effective.
"We can end homelessness in a matter of years, not decades," Care for the Homeless Policy Director Jeff Foreman told me. "It would cost less to end homelessness than we’re spending right now to not end homelessness."
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, more than 127,652 unique people, including more than children, slept in a New York City shelter in FY2016. The 2016 Mayor's Management Report (p. 96) found that the average cost of housing a single adult homeless person in a shelter was $94.57 in FY2016. The average daily number of homeless adults in NYC shelters FY2016 was 12,727. That's $1,203,592.39 per day and $439,311,222.35 for the year.
The average cost of housing a family with children was $120.22 and the average number of families with children in the shelter 12,089. That's $1,453,339.58 per day and $530,468,946.70 for the year.
All together, that's about $1 billion a year to NOT provide permanent housing.
There is no free alternative, but there are ways to satisfy our humanitarian impulse to house homeless AND our straight-up financial interests at the same time. It's pretty easy: PROVIDE HOUSING TO PEOPLE WITHOUT HOUSING.
One solution is to develop more supportive housing units to provide housing for homeless people. Supportive housing is permanent housing with social service and mental health support on site. It's not a hand-out; tenants pay rent – typically 30% of their income with Section 8 providing the additional 70%. Individuals who earn more money, pay a higher proportion of their rent. Some pay 100%. (I had a tenant who served in the military for more than thirty years. He earned more from his pension than I earned from my job. Yet he had experienced homelessness. He paid the market-rate rent, but he valued the social services and the camaraderie within the building).
An oft-cited 2014 report by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Human Resources Administration and Office of Mental Health stated that supportive housing saves taxpayers $10,100 per person just the first year that the people are housed, which is generally the least stable year for people in permanent housing.
That report doesn't even account for the various secondary economic benefits of supportive housing, such as how housing stability promotes employment and educational attainment or how the individuals living in permanent housing become active consumers in their neighborhoods.
Homelessness isn't just a tragedy, it's an unnecessary financial burden we can solve right now.