DOWNTOWN — It might seem counterintuitive in an expensive real estate market but housing the homeless can cost taxpayers less than keeping them on the streets.
That’s according to a recent study by United Way of Greater Los Angeles which followed four homeless individuals — including one from Santa Monica — as they transitioned to subsidized housing, finding that providing permanent shelter and supportive services for two years was 43 percent less expensive than the time spent in destitute the previous two years when emergency room visits and incarceration racked up costs in excess of $187,000.
The conclusion of the analysis supports findings from similar studies conducted across the country, recommending that more resources be dedicated to permanent housing for the chronically homeless.
“I think we have seen a shift here in Los Angeles and throughout the country where our providers are really focusing on permanent housing as a solution to homelessness, building the political will to shift funding sources so organizations have funding to provide permanent supportive and permanent affordable housing,” Christine Marge, the director of housing and health for United Way, said.
The organization commissioned Housing Works, a nonprofit aimed at ending AIDS and homelessness, and researchers at USC’s Center for Community Health Studies at the Keck School of Medicine, selecting four chronically homeless people who were placed in permanent supportive housing, learning about their background and evaluating their progress since leaving the streets.
The subjects include C.N., a 52-year-old white female, D.B., a 58-year-old white male, J.S. a 32-year-old Latino male, and J.W. a 61-year-old African-American man. Each coming from Hollywood, Santa Monica, South L.A. and Long Beach respectively.
They had been homeless for most of their adult lives, suffering through mental health issues and abusing drugs and alcohol, living in and out of emergency shelters, sleeping under bridges and parking lots.
The study further analyzed the two years before the individuals moved to permanent housing, finding that two had gone through detox six times at a cost of $23,382, two had been hospitalized ($20,250), all had visited the emergency room a combined 19 times for health and alcohol issues ($7,885), all had been arrested at least once ($2,756) and spent time in jail ($8,545) while one served a 90-day prison sentence ($12,060).
In the two years since they have moved off the streets, only one has visited the emergency room at a cost of $830. None have been arrested or served jail time. One person did have a drug and alcohol relapse, requiring detox and rehabilitation at a cost of $6,002.
Comparing the two-years pre and post homelessness, the total costs came at $187,288 versus $107,032.
While the study found that providing housing is less expensive to taxpayers, it found an increase in one expense category — mental health.
“It is a positive finding because it shows that individuals are increasing their utilization of community-based mental health services, which ultimately leads to housing stability,” Marge said.
The findings are also consistent with City Hall’s own analysis in following eight individuals who were generating police and paramedic services in Santa Monica, costing about $30,000 altogether. After they were housed, the individuals did not generate a single call, Stacy Rowe, the human services administrator, said.
City Hall has also backed a similar housing-first approach, creating a registry of the most chronically homeless individuals in the city and housing more than three dozen of them in the past few years.
“These are the same people who create the cost to the system,” Rowe said. “They are also people who have the most complicated situations but need intervention the most.”
She added that city officials are always looking to expand housing opportunities, whether it’s through vouchers or working with nonprofit housing developers. The city has also seen several permanent housing facilities pop up over the past year, including the opening of Step Up on Fifth and Daniel’s Village, both of which are operated by Step Up on Second.
David Snow, executive director at Upward Bound House, agreed with the conclusions of the report, noting that the cost of a child to go through his program, which focuses on families, is about $12,000, a relative bargain compared to the overall cost to society of ignoring the problem.
“I think the challenge is recognizing this lack of investment now has significant future consequences,” Snow said.
All four individuals in the United Way study are still housed in various locations throughout Los Angeles County, but the transition didn’t come easily.
Some came in with the belief that the home would eventually be taken away, others struggling to live on their own for the first time. One person used her Social Security Insurance to pay for a care worker to stay overnight.
But the results have been positive.
All four have cut old ties and developed new relationships. One man, who was homeless for more than 40 years, volunteers with three food banks.
“He said that it has given him tremendous purpose in his life to have a volunteer position,” Marge said. “He takes great pride in them.”