Journalistic Work Sample 3

Catalyst Cost Study: an Unprecedented Look at Homelessness

Story and photos by Andrew S. Avitt

The struggle of homelessness and the fight to end it can be seen in cities across the United States. Assistance for the homeless comes in various forms of resources, and public services. Recently organizations and service providers in Santa Clara County, Calif., collaborated to uncover the costs related to these resources, to streamline current strategies and to inform the new ones.

Destination: Home, a non profit organization which aims to end homelessness in the county and The Economic Round Table, a Los Angeles based nonprofit organization that investigates economic and social problems facing communities, worked together to compile the homelessness cost study “Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley,” which revealed that more than $2.5 billion had been spent on homlessness during a 6-year period..

Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, called the Home Not Found cost study definitive because of its comprehensive breakdown of costs associated with specific homeless populations.

”The data allows us to be proactive,” she said, “so that we can isolate subgroups of the homeless who use the most expensive services and to focus the right interventions towards those people.”

The study compiled diverse-data streams to analyze the population that experienced homelessness in Santa Clara County between 2007 and 2012, and found that the top 5% of the homeless population accounts for 47% of all public costs.

“Understanding these costs and their distribution across the homeless demographic, will better allow us to use the resources we do have to make the greatest impact, by focusing on triaging and providing services for the most at risk individuals,” said Loving.   

The study represents the most comprehensive body of information on the public costs of homelessness that has been assembled in the United States.

Daniel Flaming, President of Economic Round Table worked with Destination: Home to collect and analyze more than 25 million records across the county, and said that the findings were illuminating.

The study has helped define homelessness and focuses attention on frequent users of public services such as health, justice and emergency services,” he said, “The solution is clear, we need to provide permanent housing for the chronically homeless, not just because it is right but because it is also more fiscally responsible than letting those same homeless remain in their situation.”

Greg, a man who has requested the use of only his first name, has experienced homeless intermittently for almost two decades and says that there is more to it than most might expect .

“See, what people don’t understand about homelessness is how difficult it is to escape,” he said.

For the last 5 months Greg has been seeking help from one non profit organization Home First, which provides beds, hot meals and showers, but also serves as a center for services and caseworkers to provide easy access to resources for the homeless.

Without the resources offered at Home First, Greg said, he would be spending most of his day commuting between service providers and county offices leaving little to no time to work or look for a job.

“You’re homeless and you’re frustrated and there’s no way you could do it on your own. It’s impossible,” he said.

The use of services, makes up only one main point of the cost study. Another, affordable housing, remains as one of the most effective and lasting solutions for homeless individuals, said Andrea Urton, Chief Executive officer for Home First.

According to the study, the persistently homeless cost an average of $83,000 in services to taxpayers per year. However, that average is skewed heavily by the top 10% of the highest cost homeless. In contrast, typical homeless individuals cost an average of around $13,000 per year. In this way the study concludes that if permanent housing were prioritized for the highest cost homeless individuals, the savings would more than offset the funding for permanent housing.

Urton, who has worked with the homeless for more than 20 years and has also experienced times of instability and homelessness growing up, said she also understands the detrimental health effects of living outside.

According to the cost study, health related services account for 53% of all costs associated with homelessness individuals. Those costs reflect the very dire needs of the population Home First serves, said Urton.

“We serve the hardest of the hard,” she said. Although the shelter is typically closed during the day, the chronically disabled and ill are allowed in.

“The chronically ill are at such a great risk,” said Urton, “Last year we had 33 homeless people die, most because they were fragile with compromised immune systems and didn’t get the medical attention they needed.”

Home First also has sought to integrate with the existing health care system, providing better care for homeless individuals while at the same time drastically cutting the financial burden on the local health care system.

“The difference is $40 per bed here at homefirst versus thousands of dollars a night at a local hospital,” she said.

Homeless that are treated in the hospital are often released to homefirst, where the remainder of care and surveillance is carried out by medical respite nurses and doctors on staff, which makes a huge difference in the bottom line, said Urton.

Though the cost study in itself has not yet solved the problem of homelessness in Santa Clara County, it has provided an in depth look into the problem and various elements that it is comprised of.

Not too often is the right thing to do, also the most financially sound. Now armed with the data from the Home Not Found cost study, advocacy for strategies of disruptive innovation have the support from empirical data to reshape how Santa Clara County and perhaps the country addresses resolving homelessness.