Give homeless a decent place and savings may follow

Posted on June 25, 2014 in Inclusion Policy Context – Opinion/Editorial – A new study of Housing First initiatives in Toronto shows that giving the homeless a decent place to stay can help save money.
Jun 24 2014.   Editor

It’s a complex social problem with a deceptively simple solution: if you want to end homelessness, just put people into decent housing. Cynics warn of soaring costs, but a study done on the homeless in Toronto shows that “Housing First” initiatives don’t just improve lives, they can also deliver considerable savings.

It turns out that when society provides down-and-out people with a room they can call their own — a place to put down roots, where they don’t have to worry about being assaulted or arrested — they begin to heal. Hospitalizations drop, shelter use declines, and arrests go down along with all the attendant costs that come with being caught up in the criminal justice system. Over the long run, opportunities for education and employment rise.

In short, it can make considerable financial sense to respond to a problem in a compassionate way.

That, for years, has been the view of Housing First advocates in the United States and now there’s Canadian confirmation through research done in five cities, including Toronto.

More than 2,000 homeless people, mostly men, were involved in the two-year study with about half receiving a Housing First intervention. They were given an apartment of their own, with a rent supplement, and various support services including medical follow-up and mental health care. The remaining study participants – in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Moncton and Toronto – relied on conventional shelter beds and services long available for the homeless. This was deemed “treatment as usual.”

Overall study results were released earlier this year but data specific to Toronto was issued on Monday.

As one might expect, by the end of the study those lucky enough to receive Housing First were far more likely to stay off the streets than homeless people struggling to cope outside the program. Of almost 600 study participants in Toronto, those in Housing First spent an average of 80 per cent of their time in stable housing, compared to just 54 per cent for those who were left out of the program. That amounts to significant progress against homelessness.

The program itself isn’t cheap, costing just over $21,000 each year in Toronto, on average, to care for someone in desperate straits. But it results in average savings of about $32,000 for this high-need group, with the largest reduction consisting of $10,000 in unneeded hospital care.

Delivering Housing First to homeless people with only moderate needs costs less, about $14,700 a year, but it doesn’t save nearly as much money — generating about $4,300 in reduced service costs.
Beyond dollars and cents, researchers found that Housing First can work wonders in reversing a homeless person’s downward spiral.

“Many participants described housing as a catalyst for making positive life changes,” wrote Toronto researchers. “It enabled individuals to experience hope, a sense of control, security, and safety in their lives which were needed to begin a process of recovery.”

With about 5,000 people homeless in Toronto on any given night, this research has significant implications for the city. Solid evidence now points to the best way forward, and the answer is an investment Housing First.
In fairness, city hall hasn’t been idle. This approach forms the basis of the Streets to Homes program introduced by former mayor David Miller. But more needs to be done, especially in light of new research. Fresh public funding should be made available to move homeless people, especially those in dire need, into stable housing and in touch with services designed to treat their illnesses and addictions.

Yes, we can save lives — and we don’t have to break the bank to do it.
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