Being Homeless is Expensive

Being Homeless is expensive.

I’m not addressing the perceived notion that all homeless people are addicts or alcoholics, because not everyone in that situation is and not everyone who ends up that way even had those problems until after they became homeless. I am also not addressed the relatively small population of gutter punks or “travelers” who live that way as a lifestyle choice. I am addressing the issues of individuals and families who found themselves homeless and without a safety net because of circumstances.

Not only is it expensive for the person who is homeless, far more expensive than being housed in most instances, but it’s also expensive for the state. It’s a common misconception about homelessness that people choose to be on the streets. Yes, shelters exist, but they often have extensive rules that break up families (if they take families at all), disallow service animals for the disabled and have curfew rules that prohibit employment for many as well as requiring shelter residents to be gone and present during various strict scheduled parts of the day. Still, those are only problems you get to experience if there is even any space available. Most shelters will tell you to call back every so often, sometimes every day, sometimes once a week to see if space becomes open. Most shelters limit their help to families or individuals to a certain number of weeks or months. Long term transitional programs are much smaller in size and scope and usually have long waiting lists of 6 months or more to get into. Section 8 and Low Income Housing units often have waiting lists of 3-5 years or more. Once there is space available, you have to adhere to all those rules and timelines while also trying to do what you can to get yourself and/or your family out the pickle you’re in.

The Washington Post pointed out on Jul 11, 2010. ” According to a 2002 national study by the Urban Institute, about 45 percent of homeless adults had worked in the past 30 days — only 14 percentage points lower than the employment rate for the general population last month. ” 

Merely having employment doesn’t prevent or fix homelessness. When you’re homeless, you lose easy access to the majority of things most people take for granted. Access to bathrooms, showers, laundromats or places to even store work clothing may or may not be available. Many businesses have policies against the homeless coming in to use their bathrooms, how are they supposed to go into work without clean clothes or the ability to groom themselves? Could they even apply for a job like that? Of course not! For those lucky enough to live in their car, at least they have protection from the elements and the luxury of being able to travel far and wide to find day shelters or to truck stops to be able to shower or launder their clothing and they can keep their personal effects in said car. Some have to pay for a gym membership in order to shower and coin laundromats for clean clothes. If there are kids in the mix, these logistics get far more complicated. Childcare? Safe places to sleep? Food and healthcare for the kids? School? For those who end up on the streets without a vehicle, options are far more limited. At that point, you are restricted to what you can carry and how far you can walk or catch public transportation and how easily you can get back to a place where you can sleep without getting arrested. In many cities, sleeping in vehicles or public parks is illegal and you can be jailed or fined for it. How throwing someone in jail and charging them for a crime with fines helps a person who is clearly already in financial trouble, I will never understand? The point isn’t to help though, it’s to sweep under the rug. The same businesses that have policies against the visibly homeless from using their facilities, do so because of the mindset that seeing the homeless makes people uncomfortable and is bad for business. What does that do for the person who is homeless and being discriminated against? It’s dehumanizing, demoralizing and for someone who already has to spend a LARGE percentage of their time on doing things that involves basic survival, it can screw with their already guaranteed to be decreasing mental health. It’s stressful to live like that, no matter how you slice it and eventually it wears on a person and the daily phone calls and attempts to get out of your situation will wear you down eventually and it will get harder and harder to do the things that you need to in order to eventually break out of the cycle of long term homelessness. Either that happens or you become complacent, which is just as bad. Countless studies have shown that humans are capable of adapting to almost any conditions, regardless of how deplorable and dehumanizing they may be. It’s survival instinct.

The lucky ones can afford hotel rooms if they can’t get into a shelter, but how long can anyone sustain themselves that way? Many cities have caps on the number of days a person can reside in short term stay places like a hotel so they may have to move around a lot. Also, hotels usually cost 10 times more than market rent for the area, so even if you are working and sort of housed in a hotel, good luck saving up enough to get your own place. At least in a hotel room, you might have a mini fridge and a microwave. That’s something you don’t have in a car or on the street. How do you prepare meals? Even preparing food with just a microwave is more expensive than having a kitchen you can cook in and store food in. Without any of those things, you are limited to ready to eat meals like fast food. Not only is this expensive,  but it also wears down your health quicker, as does stress and communal living conditions. Lowered immune systems and poor hygiene and health combine. Homeless people spend far more time being sick than their housed peers and more often than not they don’t have insurance.

In May 2014, the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness released a new study showing that, when accounting for a variety of public expenses, Florida residents pay $31,065 per chronically homeless person every year they live on the streets. The study, conducted by Creative Housing Solutions, an Oklahoma-based consultant group, tracked public expenses accrued by 107 chronically homeless individuals in central Florida. These ranged from criminalization and incarceration costs to medical treatment and emergency room intakes that the patient was unable to afford. There is a far cheaper option though: giving homeless people housing and supportive services. The study found that it would cost taxpayers just $10,051 per homeless person to give them a permanent place to live and services like job training and health care. That figure is 68 percent less than the public currently spends by allowing homeless people to remain on the streets. If central Florida took the permanent supportive housing approach, it could save $350 million over the next decade.

The United Way of Los Angeles studied four people who had been living on the streets, then they put them into free apartments and got them access to free support services. Interestingly, it cost the government less money than it did when they were homeless. How could that be? While living on the streets, the four of them used the emergency room 19 times. Shelter costs were assessed, including the costs to run them. The cost of arrests and incarceration as a result of being homeless were taken into consideration. In total, while the four were living on the streets, it cost the government $187,288. Afterwards, the same four people, including their free housing costs and all the free services, cost the government $107,032. The biggest savings was in medical costs, which went from $26,060 to $830, and in criminal justice costs, which went from $23,361 to zero. That’s a savings of over $20,000 per person! Los Angeles is estimated to have over 60,000 homeless people, so implementing something like this could save $1.2 billion.

 In California, restrictions placed on landlords make it difficult to evict tenants. It can take 60-90 days for an eviction, all the while, the landlords may not get paid. Fair housing rules require landlords to use the same rules across the board for all their tenants, so they lack the option to set different rules for different tenants with different backgrounds. In New York City, it’s common for prospective tenants with credit issues to be required to pay many months up front for a deposit. California restricts the amount of deposit a landlord can charge and prevents them from making adjustments to what is required on a case by case basis. While it can be difficult to find housing in NYC, it’s nearly impossible for many who are homeless to find housing in California even if they can afford it. California landlords almost without exception require prospective tenants to have credit scores over 600 and no history of bankruptcy, they also require stable rental history and income at least 3 times the rent price. Many of these things are significant barriers for homeless to find permanent housing, even if they are working and even if they are making a substantial amount of money as a matter of circumstance and no fault of their own.
Most people are way closer to homelessness at any given moment than they realize. Many Americans today, live paycheck to paycheck and any series of unfortunate events can send land them on the streets in no time.  On June 24th, 2013, CNN Published a Survey that suggest that as many as 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. The mortgage crisis of 2008 and subprime mortgage lending practices landed many people of a higher income bracket in the position of homelessness. Catastrophe can happen to anyone of any background and life happens to us all. Not everyone has a support system in place that they can fall back on. Even savings will only take you so far once you are homeless, because not only is it more expensive to be homeless in many cases than housed, it’s incredibly expensive to escape homelessness. Not just for the homeless themselves, but it costs us all. It costs the state as explained above and it costs us the missing labor pool and contributions from those who could be functioning in a much healthier and more productive way in our society.

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Posted in Opinion, Rachel.

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