Everyone is paying a price for the homeless.
Aside from the hardships facing those living on the streets and the efforts of social workers and volunteers to address the issue, there is also a heavy economic impact – one which comes with a national price tag estimated at $7 billion a year.
“There is not just the cost of caring for them,” says executive director Shayne Williams of the Lookout Society, which provides housing and support services in Metro Vancouver, including Surrey. “There is the cost of not caring for them.”
Williams uses numbers pulled from a 2014 study (State of Homelessness in Canada) by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) to back up his statement.
The report pegged the average health care costs of a homeless person at $4,714 a year, compared to the $2,633 in publicly financed health care services for an average adult Canadian.
It also said the cost of accommodating one person in social housing can be as low as $199 a month, compared to $701 for rent supplements, $4,333 in a provincial jail and $10,900 for a hospital bed.
“We’re wasting money incarcerating people,” says Williams. “There isn’t a national housing strategy, and we’re the only G8 country without one.”
Williams cites the story of “Million-Dollar Murray,” an alcoholic who spent more than a decade homeless on the streets of Reno, Nevada, despite several stints in treatment programs. A 15-year police officer who dealt with Murray over the course of his entire career compiled a list of his hospital stays, substance-abuse treatments, doctor’s fees, nights in jail and attached a cost to them over a 10-year period.
“It cost us (Reno) $1 million not to do something about Murray,” the cop says.
Williams argues the merits of pro-actively helping the homeless.
“We have people like Murray in Surrey and across the Lower Mainland… people who have that impact on local government services. It’s better for all of us to help people like Murray and get them the help they need to become better.”
The CHRN report also suggests that not only does chronic homelessness increase the costs to government, but “those who spend longer periods on the street have a higher likelihood of suffering mental and physical health problems, addictions and disabilities.”
“The faster we help somebody out of homelessness, the better they can recover and move forward in a positive way,” says Williams.
“The longer they are on the street, the more they become accustomed to it, and the harder it is to get them off it.”
NO FIXED ADDRESS: Read the other stories in this Leader special report: