Giving the homeless a home is often cheaper …

Giving the homeless a home is often cheaper … September 5, 2014

than leaving them on the streets.

If your response is “Well then the obvious thing to do is give them a home and help them get on their feet!” you are both sensible and thinking like a Christian.  If your response is “I don’t care.  The homeless need to be forced to live on the street as a punishment for their shiftless indigence which I assume they must be guilty of” then consider the possibility you have more in common with a 19th century social Darwinist than with Jesus.

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  • Joseph

    I agree, but… the US actually did at one time…
    I started spending time with the homeless when I lived in Connecticut (then around the country). It is there that it dawned on me that the vast majority of them have mental illnesses and should probably be receiving treatment and be living in an asylum. I’m not saying that in a negative sense (usually when someone says, “that guy has a mental illness”, it’s thought of as derogatory). But, honestly, they would not be able to function normally in society, at least in their current states of mind. That’s when I started asking why there are not that many asylums in the US for people like these who’ve been abandoned by their families (sometimes they’re run away and can’t be found). What I found out was that Reagan closed somewhere around 90% of the asylums in the 80s and released the mentally ill onto the streets. So, it’s pretty much the same problem as it was in the 80s.
    Lest anyone think that I’m a Democrat supporter because I’ve just said something negative about St. Ronnie, I assure you, I’m not.

    • MarylandBill

      I think some balance needs to be found. I agree a lot of people need help, but I think there was a good idea behind closing the asylums as well. I think too often, the asylum had become the easy way to get the mentally ill out of sight and they ended up serving far more to warehouse the mentally ill than to seriously treat them. That being said, I think this idea of giving them a home with the only condition being that they accept treatment is a splendid idea.

    • Pete the Greek

      “Lest anyone think that I’m a Democrat supporter because I’ve just said something negative about St. Ronnie, I assure you, I’m not.”
      – HA! There’s plenty about him that’s negative, and no, I’m not a Democrat either.

      Now, if you had dared to whisper something about Abraham Lincoln perhaps not being pure as the driven snow, not quite a ‘mother Teresa in a stovepipe hat’, then I’m pretty sure there are people who have started calling for your head.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Actually, that was the last bill that JFK signed. The abuses and indignities suffered in the mental hospitals supposedly made their closing urgent, although I haven’t seen that life on the streets has any fewer abuses or indignities. Now, supposedly there were to be community centers set up to handle the mentally ill on an outpatient basis; but where any sensible person might suppose that a replacement system should be in place before shutting down the primary, that was not the case. (And there was enormous pushback from communities to keep the “loonies” out of their neighborhoods, so the idea of such community centers was a non-starter from the viewpoint of votes and democracy.)

      Keep in mind, too, that these mental hospitals — there was one up near Rittersville, PA — were not in those days by and large federal facilities. They were typically state institutions run at the county level. “You’re going to drive me to Rittersville” was a favorite admonition of my mother when we kids were especially rambunctious. Wouldn’t make sense nowadays.

      One of the first things problem-solvers learn is that a single label may be used for many separate problems, and “homelessness” is one of them. The Cuomo commission in New York many years ago (when daddy Cuomo was governor) found that the vast majority of the homeless were mentally ill, the second largest group were drug abusers (which we might think of as a form of mental illness), the third consisted of ordinary families whose breadwinner had lost employments and thence their home, and so on. This is important because what is a solution for one group (to be touted in the press) will likely fail for another (to be touted by opponents). There was a well-known case in NYC in which then-mayor Koch provided an apartment to a well-known street person, who was suitably grateful and all; but a couple months later she was back on the heating vent hurling abuse and more at passers-by. Drug abuse treatment will not help groups one and three. Mental health treatment will not help two and three; and providing a residence will not help one and two.

      Why not? Because losing a residence was an effect and not a cause of the underlying condition, and you don’t resolve a problem by dealing with the symptoms alone.

    • Dave G.

      Most people I know who liked and supported Reagan didn’t have a problem with thinking he was wrong about some things. Those who insist he was always right are likely a reaction against those who believe he was always wrong.

  • ivan_the_mad

    “The demands of the common good are dependent on the social conditions of each historical period and are strictly connected to respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights[349]. These demands concern above all the commitment to peace, the organization of the State’s powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom[350]. Nor must one forget the contribution that every nation is required in duty to make towards a true worldwide cooperation for the common good of the whole of humanity and for future generations also[351].” — Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §166

    [350] references Gaudium et Spes §26: “Therefore, there must be made
    available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such
    as food, clothing, and shelter …”

    It is clear that the Church considers the provision of housing prescribed in accordance with the realization of the common good.

  • Andy

    I agree with the above and to a large degree with the three commenters below – I can here the howls about money. THe asylums were closed as a money saving device and to remove a person who might not really need the services, though for the life of me I can’t begin to understand why life in an institution would be preferable. In our modern fix it now approach, with someone else’s money, to poverty the question of who is going to pay will be paramount even though in the long run we will save money.

    • Andy

      A quick addendum – my comment about who will pay is not to put down conservatives or liberals – it reflects for me what is so wrong with America – we have lost sight of the common good and lost sight of our need for solidarity in favor of subsidiarily alone.

    • Marthe Lépine

      About the question of who is going to pay, probably the best way to explain this to the population is to continue to publish material that demonstrates that money would, and is, actually being saved by using the method of giving the homeless a place to live and where they will be visisted regularly by counsellors. Plus, another point, is that, according to the linked story, some of them may quite possibly find jobs, even part time, that will help them to support themselves, and they might very well begin to contribute tax money, through their income as well as their ability to spend a little more.
      Running programs of that kind will probably also create jobs. Again, there would be a need to explain to the population and the taxpayers that a “productive job” does not have to be only the production of more “stuff”. People who work as counsellors and various mental health services are very productive, maybe even more than some of those who work at producing “stuff”, since the final result (the product) of their work is better adjusted, happier and even more productive individuals, who not only will cost less to society, but will eventually become contributors to society themselves.
      Much of the above actually means, as I see it, efforts at better informing and educating the public. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it can be done.

      • Andy

        As an educator I agree that education is what is needed, but to overcome the propaganda that has been spread about mental illness, homelessness, and poverty will require more than education, it will require a miracle. Not that we shouldn’t try, but the battle will be long and arduous.

    • Mike Blackadder

      As I argued above, I think that you could sell the concept of eradicating homelessness by calling it homelessness insurance. People pay into insurance already, they understand the concept. I would advocate collecting this insurance alongside property taxes and maybe and can be transferred to the client in the case of any rental agreement. Collected and managed at the municipal level it directly translates into savings in other areas which is whole other argument to sell that kind of program.

  • Mark R

    Yes. Give them a home but also something to do…and not like a workhouse. Orwell had an idea of that sort, like having them work in a garden or maintain the area. It is therapeutic not to be idle.
    I do not think asylums were closed as a money saving scheme, but because the inmates had their human rights infringed upon. They were horrible places too, and they would be much worse today…like “nursing homes” where the residents are doped up just to make them manageable.

    • Blobee

      You said, “They were horrible places too, and they would be much worse
      today…like “nursing homes” where the residents are doped up just to
      make them manageable.”
      I think this is why the simple idea of providing housing is a utopian dream; because the homeless are often people unable to manage their own lives for a variety of reasons. And so the solution cannot be just provide housing and that person will take care of the rest themselves. Often their whole lives are in shambles and falling to pieces, and so the costs to help them escalate with the number and types of problems they have, because they often require professional intervention. Homelessness is often the result of inability (or unwillingness?) to be responsible for themselves, not the cause of the problems they have.

  • Mike Blackadder

    Whatever systems that we have in terms of social assistance, welfare and the expectation of someone gaining any traction in their life simply don’t function if they’re homeless. Of all the things that people are satisfied to pay into, even at the municipal level, you’d think that it would be a no brainer to devote resources to provide everyone with housing. And yes institutions are very expensive, including asylums for those with mental illness and prisons, and I’m not surprised to hear that it would be less expensive overall if we simply paid the money to get the homeless off the streets.

    Andy said somewhere in these comments: “we have lost sight of the common good and lost sight of our need for solidarity in favor of subsidiarily alone.”
    I kind of agree, but in my view this particular problem is a perfect illustration of how the mindset of subsidiarity leads to the simpler more effective solution. Imagine if when people paid municipal property taxes and rent that it was a standard fee to pay into a ‘homelessness insurance’ that was specifically devoted to providing housing for the homeless? We don’t necessarily need complicated federal initiatives or the involvement of the IRS to solve these kinds of problems.

  • cmfe

    Amen, Mark.

  • Cypressclimber

    Once again, you’re building straw men.

    Anyone care to put a number — either a raw number, or in terms of a percentage of the total population — on just how many people would actually object to a program that houses the homeless, and is cheaper than “leaving them on the streets”? Our host assumes they exist, and they must be more than an absurdly insignificant number, since he so vigorously wants to argue with them.

    Instead, let’s deal with reality. The reality is that a lot of the homelessness we have is about intractable problems. The notion that it’s only because someone, somewhere, is not even “too cheap”–but actually, so incredibly mean that they are against a solution that saves money! Wow, how mean can you be?

    Most of those who are homeless, or near enough, are there because of:

    – mental illness
    – serious drug or alcohol abuse
    – criminal behavior, combined with one or both of the above, leading to…
    – the burning of all bridges to family and friends (i.e., where they could otherwise find shelter)

    And these are all problems very difficult to address. One idea bandied about is to legalize drugs; no, it won’t solve the problems, but it may make them somewhat less aggravated. No, I don’t like that idea, either, but there’s a valid point: our war on drugs isn’t working out all that well.

    Another is, go back to asylums for the mentally ill. Probably the right answer; except someone pointed out there were problems there, too.

    Meanwhile, folks seem to have forgotten that giving the homeless housing isn’t a new idea. We tried it, remember? Lots of money, too. They were called “projects” back in the day, and it’s called “Section 8 housing” more recently. And for reasons that shouldn’t have to be explained — but perhaps have to — it didn’t work out all that well.

    Why do you suppose the “projects” were so horrible? Was it primarily the fault of the buildings, do you think? I think we all know it wasn’t.

    So if someone has squared the circle, I’m thrilled. I hope it works. But I’m reminded of something my mother often said: “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

    • jroberts548

      I admire your resolve. You can look at a story about a program that houses homeless people and is cheaper than leaving them on the streets, and you still tell us that homelessness is an intractable, incurable problem.

      • Cypressclimber

        I’m saying it because I’ve met a LOT of homeless people in my time. I’ve spent personal time trying to understand their situation, and to do what I could, in my limited circumstances, to help.

        But hey, I guess you’re right. I should believe articles I read online, and not my own lyin’ eyes!

        • jroberts548


          I’m sure you’ve met a lot of homeless people, and each one is a precious, homeless snowflake, with his or her own unique, intractable problems. So?

          Salt Lake city had 3000 chronically homeless people. They now have 400 chronically homeless people. It was cheaper to give those 2600 homeless people housing than to police them.

          Do they still have intractable problems? Sure, why not. Are they still homeless? Nope.

          • Cypressclimber

            I see. And of course, we can be quite sure that:

            1. The article cited is 100% accurate and spin-free.

            2. The program being touted has enduring staying power.

            3. There is no possibility that the organization may have any other motive for over-selling. I mean, after all, that never happens. At least, not with people we like.

            Am I skeptical? Yep. I’ve told you why.

            If you choose to be credulous, that’s your lookout.

            And, as I said already, I’ll be delighted if this glorious solution to a chronic problem actually proves to work as gloriously as described. That’d be truly wonderful.

            But it may not. Brace yourself.

          • LFM

            Sir, you argue in bad faith and without humility. You will not serve your cause well in this fashion. Your opponent does not intend to say the things you attribute to him, and you know it. You are merely trying to play games with him – not in order to help the homeless, but to prove that you are right.

            In other words, it’s all about you.

            • jroberts548

              I’m not the one responding to the actual success of an actual program with my own anecdotal evidence. What’s in bad faith is ignoring actual programs that actually work in favor of spouting off irrelevant crap about intractable problems.

              • Cypressclimber

                If you are going to maintain that criminal records, drug and alcohol problems, and mental illness are “irrelevant” to the problem of homelessness, then please stop embarrassing yourself. I am not an expert, but I challenge you to find any credible experts in this subject who agree with you that these chronic problems are — in your words — “irrelevant crap” in relation to addressing homelessness.

                • jroberts548

                  They’re irrelevant to the programs being discussed. Cities using a housing first approach to homelessness are having considerable success. Cities that give homeless people good housing and a caseworker are having considerable success. They’re not ignoring those other problems, but they’re providing housing first.

                  It’s easy, and frankly lazy, to blame everything on unfixable problems. Here, we have a concrete example where our homelessness policy (do nothing, arrest periodically) is more expensive and less successful than the policy being tried in some cities (give them houses and caseworkers).

                  All these mysteriously unfixable, intractable problems become vastly more tractable once you give people housing and a caseworker.

                  • Cypressclimber

                    Well, I think another commenter hit the nail on the head. You wish to be quarrelsome. Everyone is entitled to ones hobby.

                    My comments have been focused (as I have said repeatedly) on Mr. Shea’s post, which relies on a straw man: that there actually exists some significant number of people who are opposed to helping the homeless even when cost-effective.

                    I can only surmise why he posed it that way — since he didn’t offer any living example of that mindset. One reason, I think, is to posit that the barrier to real progress against homelessness is this unreasoning opposition.

                    But if that’s not true, then just what is the barrier? Why, oh why does this problem go on, and on, and on?

                    The argument you seem to present — that yes, solving most homelessness is remarkably easy! And by comparison, cheap! — is just another version of it.

                    And I say again, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

                    If your contention that it truly is cheaper to the taxpayer to pursue this approach, then how do you explain why every city in America hasn’t done it? They’ve had ten years! What holds them back?

                    Are you going to argue that there’s a significant number of voters who will say, “h*** no, we want to spend TONS MORE MONEY on street people, rather than save money reducing the problem?”

                    If not, then feel free to explain why this wonder-policy hasn’t been adopted everywhere?

                    I have my explanation — which you reject.

                    Let’s hear yours.

      • Cypressclimber

        By the way, thanks for misrepresenting what I said. I never said anything like, “homelessness is an intractable, incurable problem.” What I actually said was, “The reality is that a lot of the homelessness we have is about intractable problems. The notion that it’s only because someone, somewhere, is not even “too cheap”–but actually, so incredibly mean that they are against a solution that saves money! Wow, how mean can you be?”

        I understand why you misrepresented my point; because your version is a lot easier to respond to pithily.

        • jroberts548

          So you’re criticizing a homelessness program for not fixing their intractable, non-homelessness problems?

          Other programs that don’t solve the beneficiaries’ intractable problems:
          The mortgage interest rate deduction.
          Federal deposit insurance.
          Non-dischargeable student loans.
          Flood insurance.

          I don’t know why you would criticize a homelessness program for not solving non-homelessness problems.

          • Cypressclimber

            Can you read? I didn’t criticize this program.

            I criticized the post in which it was featured.

            Do you actually need me to explain the difference?

          • Cypressclimber

            Wait, are you actually mocking me for connecting homelessness with drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior and mental illness?


            You don’t actually get why these things are intertwined?

            • jroberts548

              I’m no expert like you, but isn’t it a lot easier to treat someone for drug and alcohol abuse when he’s not homeless?

              And that’s what the Salt Lake City program, which has been going on for a decade, has found. It’s a cheaper and more effective to give someone a house and a caseworker than to leave him on the streets and arrest him for public intoxication every couple weeks.

              • Cypressclimber

                This is getting irritating. I didn’t claim to be an expert. Quote where I did. I said I had experience with people who were homeless.

                And to answer your question, whether it’s easier to treat someone for drug and alcohol abuse when it’s not homeless is exactly the question; because if a person has drug, alcohol, or — what you omitted, mental — problems, they may not respond to treatment, or they may not persevere with it. That’s why I called them “intractable.”

                If they don’t — i.e, respond well, or persevere — it’s a good bet they’ll be homeless again; because that’s more often than not why they were homeless in the first place.

                And if they don’t respond/cooperate, then the answer to your question is “no.”

              • Cypressclimber

                And to say it a third time, if it works, great.

                Not good enough for you? OK, here goes:

                Greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreat! Greato-greatie-great-great!

                Greatissimus with a cherry on top!

    • jroberts548

      Section 8 housing isn’t for homeless people. It’s a form of rent subsidy. That’s a different sort of program altogether.

      • Cypressclimber

        I think you’re being semantical. If the folks hadn’t been helped with rent subsidies, then what?

        • Grants. Many of these people are not stable enough to rent. They need to own outright. Rents and mortgages imply the ability to work and manage their own income.

          • Cypressclimber

            My point is, the rental subsidies were still about homelessness, but in this case, preventing it.

          • If you own, you have to pay property taxes. You have to pay to maintain the property. You have to mow the lawn or hire a service. There are no cost free homes and the county sheriff in your county probably has a lengthy list of properties seized because of failure to pay taxes.

            Whether it’s cheaper to rent or buy changes from market to market and year to year.

            • If the property is a grant, then what is its fair market value?

              • There is an entire profession devoted to answering that question. It is not mine. Your local county no doubt has an assessor. You can call that office up and find out how they do it.

                The process involves determining “comparables”, similar enough local properties that have sold recently. It’s not a strict science. There is a quasi-judicial appeals process.

                • I have talked to them about it. Below a certain value, they simply don’t care (it is hard to collect taxes on fractions of a penny). I thought maybe your county assessor was doing something special that would allow a property nominally owned by the government but granted to an individual for lifetime use to be taxed. Since such properties cannot be sold, there is no comparable market value.

                  They’re MUCH more interested in small home businesses like my wife’s daycare- where in addition to our personal real estate property taxes, she has to pay business property tax on such things as the refrigerator and the stove. Which actually *have* market value, unlike the hovels in say, Right to Dream Too homeless camp.

                  • When it comes to property taxes YMMV. There are 50 separate regimes, one for each state. There are also variations by county in how the state rules are enforced. Talking about anything regarding property taxes without taking into account the variations is truly foolish. That was my point.

  • Peggy

    Cypressclimber: God bless you for fighting the good fight in this “echo chamber” to use a popular internet “meme”!

    I have worked with people “on the margins” b/c of alcohol/drug problems or mental illness. Yes, it is long observed that many homeless people do not want to be part of a structured society in a home etc. Many policy folks blame the change in mental health law that make it harder to institutionalize a person. It is believed that many such people who need this kind of institutional home are many of the homeless we see today. Yes, their problems are complex and often “intractable.” God bless those who help them. Sometimes, however, people do not want to be helped.

  • Marthe Lépine

    It- seems to me that many people here are missing part of the story. (or, just maybe, and I hope not, some of them are commenting on Mark’s post without having read the whole story) It is not about JUST giving homes to the homeless. The homes (or apartments) come with weekly (or more if needed) visits by counselors, and it is a condition for being allowed to remain in the homes. And apparently, the counselors are chosen according to the specific needs of the “clients”, some will have been trained to help with addictions, others with mental illness and so on. So, the program is based on the idea that it is easier to help people who have a place of their own instead of through a shelter, for many reason that do sound very reasonable to me.

    • I would personally like to see the tiny homes environmentalists and the homeless advocates get together to make a 160 square foot home and a food bank warehouse for every 1000 homes the basic right of every American.

      You could easily do it all in the midwest, replacing old no longer used grain elevator towns with small manufactured home towns. Even use the old grain elevator for the food bank.

      Give them jobs even- offer police and fire jobs at a ratio of one for every three houses.

      After all, it worked for Australia.

      • Marthe Lépine

        That sounds very interesting and I would like to read more. Can you give me a link to a article about what is being done in Australia?

        • Sorry, at times I get cryptic. I refer to how Australia was colonized by criminals and the unwanted of England. Perhaps if we are generous enough with our unwanted, they will build something better.

      • Marthe Lépine

        Actually, I have seen at a trade show a small home built out of shipping containers that looked quite good and would not cost much to build. You can probably find some of those on the Internet too. And containers have also been used for housing workers in remote areas of Northern Alberta. It should not be too hard to provide affordable housing to most people, and I think that those containers would make better homes that some I keep seeing being built nowadays, that consist mostly of chipboard wrapped in plastic siding, and that sett for prices starting at $250,000……

        • Linebyline

          I don’t know. I hear that the outfit in my area that turns those containers into small office buildings and the like charges a pretty penny. Then again, the resulting buildings are supposed to be bomb-proof (or at least somewhat explosion-resistant), so maybe that’s got something to do with it.

  • Marthe Lépine

    Could it just be that some people have, at the back of their minds, the notion that it is “unfair” that they have to work so hard to earn a living and provide themselves with the necessities of life, while others who don’t have to work at all will be given a home and probably food for free? Probably just a sticky remnant of a Calvinist-inspired world view? I think that, unless a person has a mentally ill friend or relative and has been able and willing to really try to understand their friend’s or relative’s difficulties, it may be quite difficult to understand such situations. Even if it is generally recognized that the basic necessities of life such as a roof over one’s head, adequate food and clothing and possibilities for a dignified human life, are human rights, most people would normally think that they should be acquired through work, and maybe find it difficult to understand that not everybody is capable of holding a job, and that those who are not capable to work for a reason or another still have those human rights. It is sometimes difficult to let go of deeply ingrained prejudices, particularly if they are not even seen as prejudices. As Andy said further down, to change mentalities and overcome negative propaganda about mental illness, homelessness and poverty will be a long and arduous task, and it would take more than education, it would take a miracle. However, we should not under-estimate the power and the help of the Holy Spirit.

  • Linebyline

    Who is actually advocating for the latter? Name names. I wanna know.

  • The proper and christian attitude is neither one of the options, though the first one listed above is closer than the second one. The answer is to use the least expensive solution that will work to mainstream that individual. In some cases that’s going to be the traditional approach. In some cases that’s going to be this housing first approach. In some cases it’s going to have to be something else because neither of these approaches will work.

    It is unjust to leave people homeless. It’s also unjust to over-tax the public because the bureaucrats are too inflexible to individually tailor a least cost, effective solution. I am skeptical of 20th century bureaucracies’ ability to accomplish what I want, a scalable solution to the homeless problem that doesn’t waste huge sums in failed programs.