Monday, August 03, 2009

Homeless neighbors: a very bad deal

We've known for a long time now that homelessness costs our city big time.

At Central Dallas Ministries and the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation, we've conducted significant national research over the past several years into the costs to an entire community associated with not responding to the plight of the poorest among us.

Pick the city--you'll discover similar research results. New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and now Dallas. Allowing people to remain without homes costs communities more than what it would cost to provide decent, permanent housing to the same population.

The latest report by Dallas Morning News' reporter, Kim Horner, provides more data to substantiate the obvious.

Here's how Horner begins her report ("'Frequent fliers' run up Dallas County's homeless tab," Sunday, August 2, 2009):

Dallas County taxpayers spend about $50 million a year sheltering, treating and jailing the homeless.

Perhaps half of that is for the 600 to 1,000 toughest cases – many of whom visit emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, jails so often they're called "frequent fliers." These very ill people repeatedly cycle through a massive, uncoordinated system of local, state, federal and private institutions at alarming speed and alarming cost. And despite the millions being spent, many of these chronically homeless people remain in shelters and cardboard boxes.

"What do we get? They're still homeless," said Mike Rawlings, who serves as Dallas' homeless czar. "Somebody would be fired in the business world if they got those results."

The $50 million figure was arrived at by totaling the annual expenses of more than a dozen local taxpayer-funded agencies. It is a conservative figure because some agencies do not track how much they spend on the homeless. And it does not include at least $23 million in private funds spent locally caring for the homeless.

To read her entire report click here.

People who work to overcome homelessness in our nation understand the validity of the research. Further, the development of permanent supportive housing--that is, housing that is not transitional, accompanied by robust supportive or "concierge" services for tenants--produces clear and positive results in reducing the numbers of chronic, hardcore homeless from the streets of cities all across the nation.

More and more, cities are adopting strategies to house the most expensive "frequent fliers" who use up the majority of public services due to the fact that they do not have permanent homes. In Los Angeles County, municipality after municipality are embarking on projects designed to target and house the most expensive members of the homeless populations (usually starting with the top 50 on their lists). Utilizing a "housing first" intervention model, communities are realizing very good outcomes.

What we need is a better "return on investment."

[It is important to note that Horner's report does not address the positive impact that reducing the numbers of homeless persons would have on businesses and property owners located in and near the core of the city, to say nothing of the benefit to all of the taxing authorities depending on the success of these same property owners.]

All this makes perfect sense. And, thanks to Horner for bringing it to our attention one more time.

What makes no sense is the challenge associated with trying to site permanent supportive housing developments in Dallas.

When considered as a concept in the abstract, most people agree and even acknowledge the wisdom of the approach. After all, the data is hard to challenge.

The trouble comes when specific projects are proposed and city council support is called for district by district. Then attitudes of fine, but "not in my backyard" arise quickly.

Until a city's commitment to more effectively addressing the problem of needlessly expensive, chronic homelessness outweighs and overcomes the short-sighted concerns of district politics not much will change.

The business case for ending chronic homelessness is not only impressive, it is undeniable. In Dallas, we need to get our house in order. When we do, everyone will win.


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