Economics of Homelessness Only a Piece of the Puzzle

Illustrated tree with puzzle pieces as leaves

A large part of the conversation around homelessness is how much homelessness costs taxpayers in monetary terms. It is fair to say that there are economics involved in funding resources for those experiencing homelessness so they remain supported in their journey towards more stable housing. However, the financial aspect is only a piece of what should be considered when it comes to seeing what resources are most beneficial to those in need.

In a research paper from the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, “The curious case of Housing First: The limits of evidence based policy” (2011) by authors Victoria Stanhope and Kerry Dunn, an issue that arises is that research around homelessness is being “framed in terms of costs and benefits, reducing social problems to a common denominator in order to generate definitive ‘answers’.” Social issues are rarely black and white, and the types of questions that are often asked in research studies lack value questions such as, “is this the right thing to do?, and instead [focus on] more narrow issues of productivity and efficiency” (Dunn et al, 2011).

It is important to ask financial cost/benefit questions since it is important to know how economically sound a program is; it is equally, if not, more important to ask if the kind of help being offered is the help those experiencing homelessness need in the first place.

Housing First follows the idea that housing is a basic need and ability to obtain it should not depend on a person’s degree of psychiatric wellness or sobriety. Being housed provides a stable base to start, allowing one to continue treatment at one’s own pace. The fact that individual agency is taken into account with Housing First is important, considering that “housing [that] was dependent upon sobriety and engagement in treatment, and the rejection of or failure to adhere to these requirements was often what drove people back on the streets” (Dunn et al, 2011).

It is the idea of saving money and the fact that homelessness costs the public money that initially helped many embrace the idea of providing resources to those experiencing homelessness; however (and unfortunately), the rest of an important conversation was seemingly lost. While it is important to consider costs when creating policies, or implementing services and programs to help those most in need, it is crucial to consider who is in need, what their need consists of, and whether stepping in with a particular approach is the right thing to do.

The most visible or vocal tend to obtain the most resources, but what about the other, less apparent groups, that experience homelessness – such as families? Through studies done about the efficacy of programs for those in need, it can be said that “research informs but does not answer value questions” (Dunn et al, 2011).

Who is it that receives the limited resources available? Why? It is important to ask ourselves questions like: do we perceive the issues that result in homelessness, addiction, and mental health as structural, where there are holes in the system that people fall into? Or are we perceiving these issues as a result of character fault?

Of those who are experiencing homelessness, and struggling with addiction or mental illness, there is much to be heard and learned. Research focusing strictly on the financial cost/benefit of offering supports to neighbours in need, can only inform on an issue as long as the results are measurable in hard quantitative terms. The softer human aspect is difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to truly measure. While conversation about the most effective way to measure the impact of social programs with human, not strictly financial outcomes, does and should continue, one thing is clear at this point:  policy and systemic change to reduce the number of people struggling in our midst, will be vital to a vibrant future – one where all people are accepted, valued and can thrive in a caring community.

Written by Rachel Ganzewinkel, Communications & PR Coordinator

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