What are the “hidden” costs of homelessness and how do we begin to measure them? Homelessness is difficult to quantify for several reasons: (1) the homeless themselves tend to be “hidden”; (2) the root causes of homelessness are complex; and (3) the costs incurred by municipalities as a result of homelessness are often embedded in services spread across myriad agencies. For all of these reasons, it is difficult to effectively address the issue of homelessness. However, many organizations in the City of Charlottesville, Virginia have developed a Community Plan to End Homelessness and have begun to see the reduction of costs to public services and of those classified as chronically homeless.
A recent assessment entitled “The Hidden Costs of Homelessness in Nashville: A Report to the Nashville Metro Homelessness Commission” conducted by students at Vanderbilt University of the chronically homeless in Nashville, TN revealed that service costs were sought for “addiction treatment, advocacy, case management/referrals, child care and education, clothing, communications, counseling, documents, education, emergency care/transport, financial services, food, health care, housing/shelter, incarceration, job training, laundry, legal/courts, mental/behavioral health, pastoral care, personal care items, and transportation.” For Nashville, the average annual cost to provide permanent housing was estimated at $5,907-7,618 per person which was significantly less than the $11,500 of costs related to the temporary housing and care of average and chronically homeless.
The principle of Housing First echoes this reality. By providing permanent housing as the first step in service provision there is a resulting reduction in the provision of existing services. Charlottesville has already witnessed these benefits with regard to a new single room occupancy (SRO) facility managed by Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH). Serving Richmond, Norfolk and Charlottesville, VSH has been providing permanent supportive housing to the homeless in addition to on-site case management, counseling and financial literacy programs, community building and guaranteed tenure. On average, temporary housing in Richmond costs $9,500-13,500 per person. Permanent housing saves the public up to $9,000 per individual served. Of the residents in VSH programs, 96% obtain a stable income through work or entitlement programs and 98% of residents do not return to homelessness.
The Crossings at 4th & Preston opened March 2012 in Charlottesville and is managed by VSH. It is a SRO facility with furnished studio apartments. The facility also contains community spaces, laundry facilities, a fitness room and a computer room. The Crossings is staffed 16 hours a day with an on-call evening manager. There is extensive security, off-street parking, access to public transportation, proximity to downtown and business districts and supportive services to improve health, income and housing. The new construction is also EarthCraft Virginia-certified for resource and energy efficiency.
When we begin to understand the linkages between housing tenure, social services and stability, we begin to better recognize the hidden costs of homelessness. It is only when we see that these “hidden” costs are costs to us, the taxpaying citizenry, that we feel compelled to make the initial investment in the creation of Housing First facilities and programs. Let us hope that the homeless and the “true” costs to our society can find a way to daylight.
Guest Contributor: Laura McGurn