Do The Math!

Posted on February 15, 2011

As the rhetoric in Washington heats up over the annual budget, it seems as if most lawmakers are still applying the same old equations to the problem of reducing the deficit. While it may be appropriate in some ways to cut spending by cutting services, many of us know that short-term savings now very often translate into long-term spending increases later. This is especially true for services that benefit vulnerable populations. When very low-income individuals lose access to fundamental programs that they can’t otherwise afford, the overall financial burden to the community actually increases. This is just an economic reality that we desperately need to face.

As the budget conversation moves forward (or not), it is important to remember that there is more than one way to save money. In January of 2011, Virginia Supportive Housing skillfully demonstrated this fact when it released a report on the success of one of its programs, A Place To Start.

A Place To Start is an innovative program that serves chronically homeless individuals who have serious mental illness. By providing permanent housing and support services for these individuals, the report clearly shows that a substantial amount of money can be saved. Given the report’s outcomes, only one conclusion makes sense. When it comes to homelessness, the solution is cheaper than the problem. We need to invest in – not cut – services that get the job done right.

The APTS report specifically tracks the costs associated with four “events” common to chronically homeless individuals: emergency room visits, hospitalizations, arrests, and incarcerations. The occurrences of these events were documented among the program’s fifty-two participants during a forty-month period (twenty months prior to entry into the program and twenty months following entry into the program).  A comparison of the two time periods reveals an astonishing $320,000 in savings to the community.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than 112,000 individuals experienced chronic homelessness in the US in 2009. It’s easy to extrapolate this local data to conclude that if fifty chronically homeless individuals cost the community $320,000 over a twenty-month period, then 112,000 chronically homeless individuals must cost taxpayers at least $716,000,000 just in terms of those four common events. This is real money being spent right now without much to show for it. On the flip side, if these individuals had access to permanent supportive housing, the country could and would save at least that much within less than two years. Although that doesn’t completely solve our deficit woes, it does go a very long way AND it addresses a problem that our country has been struggling with unsuccessfully for decades.

So yes, lawmakers, let’s exercise fiscal responsibility by reigning in spending. But let’s do it in a way that won’t backfire on us three or five years down the road. There is a way, right now, for us to reduce the enormous cost of homelessness. Do the math. Invest in permanent supportive housing.

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