It Costs More To Do Nothing

If you have taken a drive in Albuquerque lately, it might seem to you that there are panhandlers at every major intersection asking for some kind of support. Homelessness is a national epidemic that, to try to curb, requires more attention from our elected officials. To deny the issue the attention that it requires (as well as the attention these people deserve) is not only turning our backs on those most in need of our assistance, but it also adds a terrible strain to our local economy and public services.

In a 2019 report provided to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by Continuums of Care, and accessible through the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness website, New Mexico had an estimated 3,241 people experiencing homelessness on any given day. Of that, 246 were family households, 257 were veterans, 216 were unaccompanied young adults ages 18 to 24, and 1,455 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. Further still, according to the U.S. Department of Education, in the 2017 to 2018 school year, an estimated 10,683 public school students experienced some form of homelessness. HUD identifies four separate categories of homelessness with a simplified definition of Category 1 “Literally Homeless” being “an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Fortunately, there are organizations within city municipalities that are using their limited resources to provide assistance where they can.

One such organization, Heading Home, which started in February of 2011 as a part of the city’s plan to tackle the issue of homelessness, envisions “the experiences of homelessness as rare, short-lived, and non-recurring.” The number of chronically homeless in Albuquerque has decreased by 80 percent since the program’s inception. The organization’s program has also alleviated costs for local hospitals and emergency aid workers by decreasing the utilization of these services through access to housing and various forms of healthcare assistance. The benefit of providing access to housing and services such as these has a tangible economic ripple effect. According to an independent study referenced in the Heading Home 2020 annual report, it is 31.6 percent cheaper to house the homeless than to leave them on the street. Additionally, the report states that jail costs decreased by 96 percent—which translates into a savings of about $43,000 per person. Between its various assistance programs, Heading Home boasts having saved New Mexico taxpayers over $6 million since 2011.

In an analysis provided by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, the people who classify as chronically homeless are high utilizers of crisis services such as ambulances, emergency departments, hospital inpatient services, psychiatric services, jails and shelters. Providing permanent supportive housing assistance can substantially reduce the use of these services among homeless people. The analysis references a 2009 study in Los Angeles that found the public cost of a homeless person was $2,897 per month, while the cost for a resident in supportive housing was $605 per month. The largest part of these savings came from reduced healthcare utilizations by the resident in the supportive and transitional housing program. A study by the UNM Institute for Social Research, and commissioned by the City of Albuquerque Department of Family and Community Services, analyzed the cost benefit of Albuquerque’s Heading Home Initiative. The study followed 95 Heading Home participants over a two-to three-year period in order to identify the costs and savings associated with the program through the use of various social and behavioral services. The findings identified that a participant in the program cost about 15 percent less (about $14,700 per person) than before entering the program. The team at the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness believes through its analysis that the homelessness issue in New Mexico can be all but resolved with an investment of about $61.3 million per year over two years, as well as a one-time investment of $48 million to provide these types of assistance programs to people who qualify. This may sound like a large amount initially; but considering the strain on public resources and emergency health services, the long-term benefits could be worth the investment. There is an old saying in medicine that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Seems about right. [ ]