Providing the homeless with a place to live may seem like a high cost for taxpayers. But the alternative, it turns out, is more costly, new research shows. Subsidized accommodation could actually be a bargain for the public, in purely economic terms.
That's because living on the street exposes men and women to higher health risks, so they're more likely to use expensive hospital services. Moreover, the homeless tend to get arrested more often than the rest of the population, which generates additional expense in the criminal justice system.
The research looked at Moore Place, an 85-apartment building that opened in Charlotte, North Carolina, in early 2012. The University of North Carolina Charlotte tracked a group of homeless a year before entering the facility, and then a year afterwards, and recorded a dramatic drop in health care use and jail time.
Total hospital bills fell from $2.5 million before to $760,000 afterwards, while the number of E.R. visits dropped from 571 to 124. Likewise, there was a 78% reduction in arrests and a 84% fall in jail stays.
Moore Place is following a "housing first" model, which says people are more likely to deal with addiction and other issues while in secure accommodation. It contrasts with other forms of support, which require people to get clean before the entering the system.
"This study adds to a growing body of research that suggests that even the hardest to serve in our communities can be successfully housed and that housing with necessary supportive services not only leads to better outcomes for individuals but is cheaper for the community," says Lori Thomas, an assistant professor at UNC, who led the study.
Of course, whether to house the homeless is a moral question, not just a matter of balance sheets. Still, it's helpful if the two arguments lead to the same conclusion.