We all pay the cost of homelessness

Here is an ironic fact: poverty is expensive. This is true on an individual level – those with good credit and comfortable savings, for example, can borrow money much more cheaply than those who are poor. But the cost of poverty is also true on a societal level – people who are homeless cost taxpayers millions of dollars as they end up in jail or the emergency room for problems mostly related to their lack of stable housing.

During the course of a few soup kitchen lunches, I asked 14 different people who have been homeless for many years to participate in a study. Thirteen agreed. Each one carries a heavy burden of shame, grief and many failed attempts at sobriety.

They have survived more than I can imagine, particularly the women who have suffered severe violence at the hands of men.

Hospital, jail visits add up

My question was simple – how often are they going to the hospital and jail, and how much is that costing?

Here is what I found:

In the last three years, these 13 people visited the emergency room of a Carolinas Medical Center or Presbyterian hospital 473 times. Two had more than 100 visits each, while four had fewer than 10 visits. To my surprise, three actually had multiple incidents of visiting the emergency room twice in one day.

The total hospital bill: $1,251,925. Medicaid covered about a third of those costs, while the rest were picked up by local tax dollars through indigent care or a loss taken by the hospital. The cost of those losses is passed on to other hospital patients.

Only one person had a visit to the state mental health hospital – a two-week visit costing nearly $7,000.

During the same time period, these 13 individuals were arrested 163 times, spending an average of 49 days each year in jail. Of the 163 arrests, more than 95 percent were misdemeanors, often related to their homelessness and/or addiction. The most common charges were related to drinking alcohol in public.

This jail time cost taxpayers $205,901, but that does not take into account the cost of the arresting officers' time or the cost of court proceedings.

Looking only at jail and hospital visits, these 13 people cost an average of $112,000 per person over the last three years, bringing the total cost to nearly $1.5 million. Worse yet, these expensive interventions did not end their homelessness, and society will likely spend that much money into the future.

Lower cost, better results

The good news is that for much less money, we can invest in programs that work to house and support the chronically homeless, decrease jail and hospital costs and improve their quality of life. A new program in Charlotte hopes to do just this. Homeless to Homes moves people from the street into permanent housing, instead of shelters, and surrounds them with supportive services. So far the program has moved nine people into homes.

Charlotte's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness calls for the creation of 500 such supportive housing units for those who have been on the street for years. It is time for local government, the business community and the non-profit sector to work together to aggressively meet this goal.

Everyone deserves a safe and stable living environment. By failing to provide a home for our most vulnerable citizens, we cost ourselves more than can be quantified.