English: A chronically homeless individual inh...

English: A chronically homeless individual inhabiting a bus shelter in Porter Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, the number of homeless shelters increased in the 1980s due to a variety of factors. One factor was the recession of that time which resulted in more people being unable to afford housing. A second factor was a shift away from single room housing. Though rather limited in size, this sort of housing was cheaper than the alternatives. Back in the early 1990s, some of my fellow graduate students lived in singles, but these seemed to be (like most graduate student housing) relics from another time. A third factor was the infamous closing of mental institutions and reduction in care for the mentally ill. While proponents of the approach lauded the cost savings, some critics saw it is as simply dumping the ill onto the streets.

In the face of this surge in homelessness religious groups, charitable organizations and governments increased the number of homeless shelters. The intent was to provide people with a place to stay until they could sort out their problems and thus be able to have a permanent home. This approach does make a certain sense and did work in some cases. After all, it seems reasonable to infer that people become homeless because of problems (financial, mental and so on) and that once these problems are fixed, then a person will be ready to have a home. Unfortunately, this approach did not prove very successful and there are about 640,000 homeless Americans with about 110,000 of them being chronically homeless.

Fortunately, an alternative approach seems to be having a more positive impact. This approach reverses the old approach: rather than “fixing” people so that they are ready for permanent homes, this approach involves getting the homeless into more home-like shelters or permanent housing. Those who need treatment are given treatment and the results seem to have been very positive: 85% of those involved in this approach remain in their homes rather than ending up back on the streets.

While this approach seems to have merit, there is the stock concern that the state funded programs are wasting the taxpayers’ money by supporting free-riders. Somewhat ironically, the troubled economic times that increase homelessness also decrease the funding available for such programs and also gives some support to claims that scarce financial resources should be better used, perhaps by allowing more tax breaks for the job creators. As such, there seem to be two main arguments against funding such programs with state money.

The first is a utilitarian argument. Because of the recession, there is less state money available than what was normal before. As such, it is even more important that the money be spent effectively. Putting money into shelters, programs and permanent housing for the homeless would yield less positive results than using the money elsewhere (such as deficit reduction, tax breaks for the job creators or maintaining infrastructure). As such, the money should be spent in these other areas rather than in addressing the problem of homelessness.

This argument can, of course, be countered by showing that the money spent on addressing homelessness would be less than the cost of not addressing the problem. If this is the case, than the cost argument favors spending the money rather than incurring the costs that can be avoided or mitigated by spending.

While homelessness is clearly bad for the people who are homeless, it also is rather costly to society as a whole.

One area of cost is the medical costs of homelessness. On average, homeless people average hospital stays four days longer than comparable non homeless people. This costs about $2,414 per hospitalization. Also, since homeless people tend to not have insurance, the cost is born either by the state (that is, us) or by those with insurance (in the form of increased premiums).

Not surprisingly, people do become homeless because of medical problems and medical problems are also caused by being homeless. Those who are homeless are more likely to become ill than those who have homes and are more likely to suffer from problems of greater severity. As such, homelessness adds a burden to the health care system, especially the emergency rooms. Addressing the problem of homelessness would help reduce these costs.

Another area is crime and prisons. People who are homeless tend to spend more time in prison than the non-homeless. In some cases, they are arrested for “general” criminal activity, but they are often arrested for breaking laws that are aimed specifically at the homeless, such as laws against loitering and begging.

While prisons can be quite profitable for the private companies that run them, it costs an average of $20,000 a year to keep a person in prison. The specific costs vary due vary. For example, a prison stay in California costs $47,000 a year. While those who profit from prisons will not see it this way, reducing homelessness would be a good thing because it would mean fewer people in prison and thus lower the cost to the taxpayers.

A third factor is the cost of emergency shelters—the traditional homeless shelter. These shelters are considerably more expensive than the cost of a permanent residence. As such, permanent housing would provide a savings over temporary shelters.

Naturally, it is reasonable to wonder what impact the permanent home programs might have on the cost to society of homelessness.

One program resulted in a savings of $2,449 per person each month compared to the cost of temporary shelters. A study in my home state of Maine  showed that the permanent housing approach yielded a 57 decrease in the cost of mental health services, mainly due to a 79% reduction in the cost of hospitalization. In Los Angeles, a study showed that putting four people into permanent housing saved over $80,000 per year.

Of course, this savings assumes that the temporary shelters would be funded. For those willing to allow homeless people to live on the streets, this sort of program would not yield the highest savings. After all, the cost of housing the homeless on the street would be nothing. Of course, this would not reduce the other costs associated with homelessness and would almost certainly increase them. After all, people living on the street are more likely to get ill or injured and also more likely to be arrested.

Of course, the medical costs could be addressed by changing the law so that people can be refused even emergency medical care if they cannot pay and ending all state-funded treatment programs for addiction and mental illness. That is, we could entirely abandon the homeless, other than providing them with prison when they are arrested. Of course, there would still remain the question as to whether or not this would result in a cost saving. After all, the abandonment approach might result in a large enough increase in number of homeless people being imprisoned to offset the savings from abandonment. Naturally, this does not take into account the moral cost of abandonment, just the financial cost.

Overall, the evidence does seem to be that providing permanent housing for the homeless would be a cost saver, though perhaps not as big a cost saver as comprehensive abandonment. The second argument is a moral argument or, rather, various moral arguments. One stock argument is based on the idea that we have no moral obligations to others and hence it is not the case that we should provide such support to the homeless. On this view, we could provide such support, but we are not obligated to do so.

A second stock argument is that providing such support is immoral because it creates a culture of dependency. That is, by providing the homeless with permanent homes and treatment for any health problems they might possess they are learning to depend on others and will be unable to carry their own weight. While not supporting them might seem harsh, the argument is that this sort of “tough love” will enable then to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

While this line of reasoning has some appeal, one obvious reply is that this approach seems analogous to addressing a broken leg by refusing to treat it because putting a cast on a broken leg will just make the person dependent on the cast.  As with a broken leg a person whose life is broken needs support until she can stand on her own again.

One reply to this is that while this might hold for those who will be able to stand on their own, it does not address the problem of those who will remain dependent on support forever. These people, it can be argued, are just parasites and should not be supported.

I do, of course, agree that someone who is just free-riding the system should not be supported. However, the number of people who will become homeless and unemployed just so they can free-ride seems to be rather low (but more than nothing). After all, most people want to be self-supporting rather than dependent on others. To deny people who need the support to rebuild just because some small percentage of people would free-ride seems as unreasonable as getting rid of handicapped parking because some people will get decals for those spaces that they are not really entitled to.  It can also be countered that supporting a free-rider in such a program would be cheaper and less damaging than having them free-riding on the alternative system.

Another stock moral argument against providing support for other people is that those being supported are stealing from the taxpayers by having their housing and treatments being paid for by others. As such, the homeless are morally in the wrong and we should not enable their theft by allowing such programs. Alternatively, the homeless people could be cast as being pawns used by the politicians who are stealing money from taxpayers and giving it to the homeless. Or, for extra immorality, the homeless and those who enable such support can be seen as being in wicked (or at least misguided) cahoots.

One obvious reply is that by this sort of reasoning we all spend years as thieves. After all, as children we live off our parents (or whoever is keeping is alive), we steal education from the state (or whoever is paying for it), and until we pay enough in taxes to pay for all the public goods and services we use we are stealing every time we walk down a public sidewalk, drive on a public street or go to free a public park. We also steal from all those who have come before us and who enabled us to live in a modern society with technology, medicine and such. That is, we are all beneficiaries of the labor, money and ideas of others. As such, it would be somewhat hypocritical to regard the homeless as thieves because they are assisted by others.

The obvious reply is that the non-homeless who do pay taxes (and presumably pay off their financial debt to their families) eventually pay back what they stole (or borrowed) from society when they were young thieves. Of course, the same could be said of the homeless—if they are able to return to society and work, they can repay what they owe to others.

This does not, however, address the problem presented by those who will either never be able to return to contributing to society or who will not be able to repay what they cost society, perhaps because of mental illness. The obvious reply to this is that it would seem unreasonable to see such people as thieves. It could, of course, be argued that we should be rid of those who cannot support themselves—but this would be a different moral argument than the one based on thievery.

What, then, about people who could return to society but elect to be free-riders? That is, their situation is entirely a matter of choice and tomorrow they could be at a job earning enough to pay their own way. In this sort of case it would be reasonable to regard these people as thieves. After all, they are taking what they could earn by honest labor and there would be (by the scenario presented) no justification for them receiving support. However, these cases seem to be rather limited in number (but more than none, I am sure). As argued above, the fact that a very few people might exploit something intended to help people in need does not give an adequate reason to treat everyone in such a program as being an exploiter.

In light of the above arguments, providing permanent housing for the homeless seems to be both a cost saver and morally acceptable.

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