The Portland Police Department reported that in 2017 more the half the arrests they made were of homeless people, many arrested multiple times. The homeless are also frequent users of ambulance and hospital emergency-room services. The state of Utah estimated a homeless person costs taxpayers more than $20,000 a year. Colorado calculated its cost at $43,000.
Politically-conservative Utah has received a lot of positive press the past couple years for its surprisingly successful approach to their homeless population. In 2005, the state initiated its “Housing First.” The program targeted “chronically homeless” who numbered about 2,000, mostly in Salt Lake City. Although a relatively small part of its total homeless population of 14,000, the chronic cases absorbed 60% of the resources expended on the problem. The non-chronic, usually temporarily, homeless are mostly in shelters or couch surfing with friends and relatives. Assistance to them continued with transition services, helping stabilize families’ lives whether searching for employment or providing health care to children. Housing First made its priority people living on the streets, often mentally ill or debilitated by drugs and unlikely to be candidates for jobs any time soon.
Rather than attempting some sort of rehabilitation to make persons eligible, Housing First took the opposite approach, moving people into apartments and tiny houses. They began with a test program taking seventeen people off the streets and into homes of their own, charging nominal rent. To the surprise of many, formerly homeless people liked sleeping in a bed rather than a sidewalk and also preferred using a toilet rather than behind a bush or in a driveway.
In ten years since the pilot project began, Utah reduced its chronic homeless population by more than 90%. The cost was less than half – about $8,000 – of what the state had been spending per homeless person. (Adopting the same program, Colorado’s cost went down to $17,000.) Other states have taken the same approach.
Naturally, there has been backlash. Critics have questioned the results, usually quibbling about how homeless are counted or what is the definition of success. The recent surge in opioid addiction has also increased the number of homeless. Utah, however, still sees its methods as successful, as do other states.