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Cost of Homelessness

The City of Oklahoma City released it’s Cost of Homelessness Study last Tuesday.  You can find the entire text of the report on the City’s website, www.okc.gov, or here on our website by clicking the “About Us” button and looking under “Research.”  The Oklahoman did a front page article on the study you can find here;

The total cost of homelessness for the year was almost $29 million. 
The  cost study tries to determine the total costs of homelessness to the broader community from April 1, 2009 to March 31, 2010.  The consultants who completed the study, Spangler and Associates, were able to get financial data from almost all of the providers we usually think of when we talk about homelessness; the nine emergency homeless shelters, the transitional housing providers, the substance abuse and mental health treatment organizations, etc.  Moreover, the consultants also got data from entities that we maybe don’t often associate with homelessness; EMSA, the Fire Department, Police, and local hospitals.   Those traditional programs accounted for about $18,000,000 of the total cost (62%of the total), the non-traditional cost centers accounted for about $11 million or 38% of the total.
The largest single cost center comes from our emergency shelters.  Altogether, the shelters comprise 812 beds.  Oklahoma City’s shelters are much more than “two hots and a cot.”  They are, in fact, the front door to the continuum of care for Oklahoma City’s homeless.  At the larger shelters, you can find mental health and substance abuse treatment, medical clinics, legal counsel, access tocertain kinds of housing, spiritual counseling, job placement and training services, etc.  That’s the reason shelter beds appear to cost so much in the study. ($10,738 average cost of providing one shelter bed for a year.)
There are several takeaways you can get from this report:
  • Shelter beds cost more than either transitional housing beds or permanent supportive housing beds.  That’s right, the band-aid solution is actually more expensive than solutions that try to get at the root of the problem.  But homeless shelters are the “simple” solution, easy for donors to see, understand and support.  Unfortunately, homelessness is a complicated problem and the simple solution won’t (can’t) have a permanent impact.  Don’t get me wrong.  People who go to our shelters often get their lives back in order and escape homelessness because of the help the shelters have to give.  In fact, most of the people who go to our shelters never return.  Unfortunately, shelters are not the answer for those of our homeless who have multiple barriers to getting back on their own two feet.
  • Although we’re spending millions on shelter, we only spent $107,000 during the study period on case management.  Case management is what we used to call social work, and its the thing that prevents homelessness on the front end, and moves people out of homelessness on the back.  Imagine you have a mental illness, lets say you’re mildly bipolar.  Hard to hold a job and your inability to hold a job means you periodically get evicted or your utilities get turned off.  That’s depressing, so you turn to drugs.  Now you have three big problems.  One night you get taqnked up and get in afight that the police respond to.  Now you have a record, untreated mental illness, a substance abuse problem, a spotty employment history, crappy credit and a history of evictions.  Truth is, at this point, only someone trained to navigate the system and help you keep to the straight and narrow is ever going to be able to dig you out of the hole you’re in.  That’s a case manager – a critical component to ending homelessness in our community, yet only 1/3 of one percent of the total cost of homelessness.
  • Local hospitals contributed more than $5 million to the cost of homelessness, with nearly three-quarters of that coming from St. Anthony Hospital.  This does not include any reimbursed costs (like from MedicAid) that the hospitals may have incurred.

There are other lessons to be learned from the report – especially concerning the chronic homeless and Oklahoma City shouldering the burden of caring for our neighbors’ homeless.  We’ll address those in later posts.

-Dan Straughan

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