Homelessness has heavy costs

Anyone who dropped into Project Connect at Our Place this week would understand the moral case for ending homelessness. Young people, the elderly, people with disabilities, all lined up for services and supplies to ease the desperation of their lives.

But the economic case is just as compelling. York University professor Stephen Gaetz has released a report on The Real Cost of Homelessness in Canada, collecting the results of scores of research projects.

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It confirms that our current approach doesn't make economic sense. We have responded to increasing numbers of people who can't get or keep housing with a costly network of emergency shelters and Band-Aid solutions.

It has been expensive. Emergency shelter beds cost $13,000 to $42,000 per person, Gaetz reported.

Yet long-term affordable housing can be provided for $5,000 to $8,000, a huge savings. Even if supported housing is required - often the case for people dealing with mental health or addiction issues - it is less costly than shelter beds.

And the direct shelter expenses are only a small part of the huge economic costs of homelessness.

People without stable housing are more likely to be sick, their health problems worsened by malnutrition, exposure and the inability to deal with illnesses. An exhaustive Canadian study looked at health-care system use - doctors, emergency rooms, hospitals - by 1,190 homeless people. The average cost was $4,000 a year more than for a typical Canadian. That suggests healthcare costs in the capital region, for example, could be reduced by more than $4 million through a successful housing initiative.

The study also noted the significant policing and justice-system costs in attempting to deal with people without housing, particularly when homelessness is criminalized. A 2010 study found that 23 per cent of Canadian prisoners were homeless at the time of incarceration.

And of course, once people are homeless, a return to a stable life becomes much more difficult. Finding work is hard when you have no address or phone number and show up for interviews looking like you have slept in your clothes - because you have.

Providing housing, with supports if necessary, saves money.

The report also makes a strong argument for shifting our focus to prevention - to making sure people don't become homeless in the first place.

That can be easy, and cheap. Vancouver's new Rent Bank, for example, offers small loans to people at risk of being evicted. It is a simple way to keep people housed.

It's also possible to target population groups to prevent homelessness. More than half the homeless young people in this region were in the government's care. The provincial policy of ending almost all support the day a youth turns 19, often without the skills, maturity or money to make his or her way in life, greatly increases the risk of youth homelessness. Fixing that would not be costly and could change lives.

About one-third of prison inmates are released into homelessness (adding greatly to their risk of re-offending). People with mental illness are routinely released from hospital with no effective housing plan.

Prevention makes much more sense - and costs much less - than trying to deal with a person who has already lost stable housing.

The subtitle of the Gaetz's report is: "Can we save money by doing the right thing?" The overwhelming evidence shows we can, and should.

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