Study reveals cost of homelessness in LA

Providing permanent housing for the homeless in Los Angeles could save taxpayers thousands of dollars, according to a study conducted by a nonprofit organization with the assistance of USC researchers.

The study, the first of its kind in Los Angeles, was conducted by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and released last week. It took place between 2005 and 2009, following four homeless individuals in Los Angeles and noted their mental health, physical health, encounters with law enforcement, substance abuse and housing costs.

According to the study, taxpayers are spending about $20,000 more in a two-year period per person living on the street than those in permanent housing, meaning they would save 43 percent of the cost if a homeless person were offered a place to live.

“After being placed in permanent housing, there was a decrease in their visits to the hospital, substance abuse and jail time,” said Michael R. Cousineau, an associate professor of preventive medicine research at the Keck School of Medicine, and the principal investigator for the report.

The study used self-reports and public records to calculate how much the city spent on each homeless individual based on the number of visits to the hospital, time in jail and psychiatric or substance abuse help, and compared it to the relative cost of living in permanent supportive housing.

Suzanne Wenzel, a professor at USC’s School of Social Work and an expert in homelessness and substance abuse treatment, agreed that decreased visits meant less taxpayer money would be spent.

“These findings for Los Angeles are consistent with other cost studies in other parts of the country,” Wenzel said. “Other studies have shown that nights in a psychiatric hospital or a night in jail are actually more costly than a night in permanent supportive housing.”

Cousineau said he hopes city officials acknowledge the results of the study when deciding how to deal with the homeless population.

“Hopefully they will see the supportive results and invest in housing instead of in shelters,” he said. “The cost for the government would go down with the reduction of services.”

Wenzel also said officials should pay attention to the results of the study, as it offers a straightforward solution to the problem of chronic homelessness.

“It’s further evidence to policymakers that providing permanent supportive housing is an appropriate approach to addressing homelessness,” she said. “Providing housing to homeless individuals is not only the humane or ethical approach, but also more cost effective.”

Cousineau pointed out that other areas that have conducted studies like this one have used the results to improve the states of their homeless populations.

“Many cities like San Francisco have done a lot like turning four crumbling hotels into permanent housing for homeless,” Cousineau said.

He added that he hopes the study will raise awareness and help local organizations, such as Skid Row Housing Trust and A Community of Friends, address the problem.

“Skid Row Housing Trust is just not enough given the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles,” Cousineau said.