Politics

Reducing Homelessness is Easier Than You Think

June 1st 2015

By:
Laura Donovan

Santa Clara County may be located in Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest parts of the country, but it also has one of the biggest homeless populations in the United States. Setting aside some of the devastating realities of homelessness --- that many homeless people have been raped and are more likely to die significantly earlier in life than their sheltered counterparts --- homelessness is also very expensive for society.

That's why a new study conducted by Santa Clara County, the nonprofit public policy research group Economic Roundtable, and homeless advocacy agency Destination: Home found that the best way to approach homelessness is to give these folks places to live. Santa Clara County will expand Destination: Home, which provides housing to those without shelter, and is developing a "triage tool" so health facilities and jails can determine homeless individuals with the most expensive needs up front, according to Mother Jones.

The research found that Santa Clara County communities spent $520 million annually from 2007-2012 in services for the homeless population, and more than half the costs went to health care services. Nearly $200 million per year went to justice system costs, the majority of which went straight to incarceration costs. A third of the homeless people observed in the research had come into contact with the criminal justice system over the six-year period. Of this group, a third faced felony charges, half had misdemeanors, and a third were charged for drug offenses.

Persons with Justice System Contact

The study looked at Destination: Home's program, which has provided shelter for almost 1,000 homeless people since 2010 and concluded that housing the homeless saves the county $42,700 per year. The researchers came to this figure after examining more than 400 people who had received housing from Destination: Home and saw that the public costs per person dropped from $62,500 to $20,000 annually once these individuals were given permanent housing.

"When someone is housed, [self-medication of health problems is] much less likely to happen and people are getting preventative care," Daniel Flaming, head researcher and president of Economic Roundtable, told Mother Jones. "Having stability and managing problems more effectively reduces costs a great deal. At the end of the day, the solution that really makes sense is to prevent homelessness. It creates a lot of wreckage for individuals and for communities. For every community to get better at preventing people from falling through the cracks and to reduce the flow of people into homelessness—that is ultimately the best solution."

Santa Clara County is not the first place to take this kind of approach to homelessness. Utah's Housing First program has eliminated nearly 75 percent of the homeless population over the last decade by providing homeless people with places to live.

"Going from homelessness into a home changes a person's psychological identity from outcast to member of the community," New York University psycholigst Sam Tsemberis told Mother Jones earlier this year.

Homelessness in Utah

Last year, New Orleans announced it would be eliminating its homeless veteran population by moving them into a new mixed-housing complex. The initiative is part of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Mayors Challenge," a movement attempting to end veteran homelessness before 2016. The program asks that cities adopt the "housing first" approach to end homelessness. As ATTN: previously put it, "The premise is built on giving people the basic right of shelter to encourage them to make positive lifestyle changes, as opposed to rewarding them with shelter if (and only if) they suddenly decide to eschew their addictions."