Last month, the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) released a compilation report on the costs of caring for Canadians on the street. While homeless advocates usually make appeals to compassion and morality when championing policy reforms to help the most impoverished of this country’s citizens, the report attempts to illustrate empirically the financial impact of homelessness.
What author Stephen Gaetz makes clear is that calculating the cost of homelessness must not only account for shelters or soup kitchens, but also peripheral services, such as health care and the justice system, that homeless people come into contact with more frequently than society at large. As they are often poorly nourished, unable to engage in adequate sanitation practices, and live in settings where exposure to communicable disease is high, for instance, homeless Canadians experience a serious deterioration of their physical health. In addition, 40 per cent of this population suffers from mental health issues. As a result, they are hospitalized five times more often than the general public during any given year, usually for longer periods.
According to a 2007 Wellesley Institute report cited by the CHRN, the average monthly expense of housing a homeless person in a Toronto hospital is $10,900. To provide them with a shelter bed costs $1,932. But here is where the data may surprise you: Putting a roof over that same person’s head, either with rent supplements or social housing, would require just $701 or $199.92, respectively. In fact, a similar study conducted in British Columbia discovered that province’s homeless population currently costs the public system $55,000 per person per year, but if every homeless person were instead provided with adequate housing and supports, they would require just $37,000 — saving the province $211 million annually.
When it comes to social policy, Canadians are often told there must be a balance between compassion and affordability. As it turns out, in this case, the right thing to do is also the least expensive. This should perhaps come as no surprise, as in life generally a proactive strategy is almost always more efficient than a reactive one. Still, there is now hard data to show funding emergency services, shelters, and day programs is just not as cost-effective as providing homeless citizens with a place to live and the social supports to help them stay there