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Editorial: Housing worth public expense

Home isn’t just a sentimental concept, it’s a necessity. When people are deprived of that necessity, they suffer in many ways.

Home isn’t just a sentimental concept, it’s a necessity. When people are deprived of that necessity, they suffer in many ways. Preventing or eliminating that suffering should be sufficient reason to help the homeless, but if altruism alone isn’t enough, studies show that providing affordable housing saves society a lot of money.

The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness reports that on one night in February, 1,167 people sought temporary shelter in the region; 78 were turned away. Andrew Wynn-Williams, executive director of the coalition, says there are probably many more homeless people the group isn’t aware of.

In addition, some families live day to day in hotels and motels because they can’t afford housing.

Many homeless people suffer from poor health, mental illness and addictions. Many of them have run-ins with the law. The relationship between people’s problems and their homelessness can be an endless chicken-and-egg argument, but study after study has shown that providing homes reduces the problems and saves money.

For instance, a 2006 Simon Fraser University study estimated that it costs $55,000 per person per year to leave someone homeless in B.C, while housing and support would cost $37,000.

A 2005 study comparing four Canadian cities estimated that it costs $66,000 to $120,000 per person a year for institutional responses to homelessness (such as prison and psychiatric hospitals) compared to $13,000 to $18,000 for supportive housing.

About 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness in any given year, according to The State of Homelessness in Canada, a 2013 study done for the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. On any given night, 30,000 Canadians are unsheltered (sleeping in cars, parks or on the streets), staying in emergency shelters or in women’s shelters, or accommodated in hospitals, prisons or interim housing.

The report refers to another 50,000 “hidden homeless,” people couch-surfing or staying with relatives because they have no home of their own.

The report’s authors say this costs the Canadian economy $7 billion a year.

“Homelessness is expensive because we cycle people through expensive public systems and increasingly costly and unco-ordinated emergency services systems,” says the report.

“By shifting focus to permanent solutions, we have the opportunity to reduce the long-term cost of homelessness and make more efficient and effective use of public resources.”

Treatment of addictions and mental illness is more effective if a person has a home. An unemployed person is further disadvantaged by being homeless — imagine trying to find a job if you don’t have a place to take a shower, hang your clothes and receive mail and phone calls.

An increasing number of homeless people are senior citizens. In the capital region, that situation will be alleviated a bit by the Cottage Grove development in Saanich, which will provide 45 suites for homeless seniors, but we need more such projects.

Every study done shows that the cost of such housing is a worthwhile investment, as it reduces the costs to society that result from such things as encounters with the justice system and emergency-room visits.

While government should funnel more funds toward housing for the homeless and low-income families, these projects are better planned and managed by nonprofit organizations such as the Cool Aid Society, which has raised $1.3 million so far for the Cottage Grove development. Such groups are less likely to be swayed by political currents and more likely to manage things efficiently and compassionately.

Some might say the public purse shouldn’t pay to house the homeless, but when all the numbers are crunched, it’s clear we can’t afford not to do it.

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