The Cost of Homelessness

I talk about the moral imperative of not allowing any of our people in Kent County live and die on our streets. For some, this call does not resonate. There is still a strong undercurrent of the sense that people get what they deserve in life and that poverty and homelessness are only a result of choices in life. While this view completely disregards the structural parts of our society that allow poverty to continue (which I will discuss more tomorrow), even if it were complete and true, it still makes more sense to house people than to leave them homeless. This is also a matter of dollars and cents.

Countless studies have been done over the years to show that when a person is homeless for a long period of time, they tend to have many more interactions with costly emergency services than their peers who are housed. These are interactions with police, emergency medical services, and firefighters. They are stays in emergency rooms, crisis mental health centers, and jails.

A ground breaking article first shed light on this, Million Dollar Murray. Since then many studies have been done, finding savings to taxpayers around $30,000 per person housed annually. However, we know that there are other folks outside that avoid emergency systems as much as possible. They suffer through ailments and illnesses on their own. When these people come into housing and finally seek medical care, the cost of their care will likely temper the overall system savings we saw from others. In the end the savings may be much less and it may even be a wash.

There is a third financial component to this, however. If housing people saves money, or if it ends up fiscally neutral, the community is still better off with people housed. Ask businesses on the Division corridor in Grand Rapids, and I’m sure they will tell you that they would much prefer to see people housed. There is a business case, by our local businesses to ensure people are housed.

Outside of the financial costs to us when we allow homelessness to persist, there is a cost to us that is realized as lost potential. Our community would be healthier all around if we invested in housing for those without it. People who are safely and securely housed can start healing, start thinking about and investing in their future and have an opportunity to contribute back into the larger economy.

Tomorrow at noon we will discuss the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. In this book he reflects on the American ideal of each person’s rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” As this relates to housing, he states,

“Life and home are so intertwined that it is almost impossible to think about one without the other. The home offers privacy and personal security. It protects and nurtures. The ideal of liberty has always incorporated not only religious and civil freedoms but also the right to flourish: to make a living however one chooses, to learn and develop new skills. A stable home allows us to strive for self-reliance and personal expression, to seek gainful employment and enjoy individual freedoms… The pursuit of happiness undeniably includes the pursuit of material well-being: minimally, being able to secure basic necessities. It can be overwhelming to think of how much happiness has been lost, how many capabilities snuffed out, by the swell of poverty in this land and our collective decision not to provide all our citizens with a stable and decent place to live. ”

Please join us to discuss this great read—even if you aren’t all the way through it!