Sound like a good deal? Wouldn’t there be multiple winners if we could simultaneously save money currently spent on homelessness and reinvest in our neighborhoods and the community at large? I think we can do this—what do you think?
Let’s start with the basic math in terms of the shelter in which I work (the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter). If we eliminate the cost of an outreach program and also a case manager who works with folks who have Mainecare, the annual operating costs for 24/7 shelter equal $600,000. Last year the Shelter provided 12,615 nights of shelter. That gives us a cost of $47.56 per night. (Please note that, for the Shelter, “night” actually means a 24 hour cycle with up to 3 meals and a lot of supportive service work.) If you’ll let me say that a month equals 30 days, then a month’s cost would be $1,426.80. That amount of money would get you a 3 bedroom 2 bath brand new single family home to rent within 12 miles of Bangor!
What kind of housing could we provide to people experiencing homelessness if we cut the present cost for shelter in half and used the savings for rent? $713.40 might get you rent a very decent efficiency or one bedroom apartment in Bangor. It would get you a better selection if we figured out how to increase the supply. But even looking simply at things right now, we could drive someone from the shelter to an apartment and save about $8,500 a year! Huh?
Most of the cost of operating an emergency shelter is staffing. Our forecast budget for fiscal 2016 shows all employee driven costs equal to 81% of our entire budget. Obviously, we don’t generally assume a similar level of staffing for rental housing. Some significant number of people staying in a shelter would in fact need a level of support equal to their disabilities in order to stay safely housed. But note that studies also find that, by providing housing for people who were in shelters, we achieve big savings by way of reductions in emergency services including law enforcement, other first responders and use of emergency rooms.
So how would this relate to strengthening our neighborhoods? There are lengthy and professional descriptions of how this could be achieved, but let me go to a simple explanation. We have some of the oldest housing stock in the nation. Much of it is now substandard, and a lot of housing that is in poor repair and located near city centers serves as cheap rent for the poorest and homeless among us. By concentrating people together who have been beaten down, born with genetic tendencies for major mental illness and/or addictions, and lacking a level of employability beyond fast food and other, low paying retail jobs, we have established some certainties. We have created conditions to assure that chunks of our urban landscape that were once some of the most desirable are now ugly, and that those who have to live there stay on course to end up costing the rest of us. (There is significant and recent professional discussion about the sense and experience of social isolation being a key factor in addiction.) Major housing rehabilitation or razing then building new is expensive. Keeping people down in the bottom of the hole is expensive, even if we do that unwittingly. Costs include some for special education, law enforcement and incarceration, emergency services, certain entitlements, and medical supports for chronic disease.
We could instead invest in housing and in low income people, including those with special needs. If we can go up high and take a look at the bigger picture, that view will be clear in terms of how we could and should better deploy our resources– spend less money to actually house people, use the savings to reinvest in neighborhoods, and make the community more attractive and healthier for all of us.
Bangor has begun to do thoughtful, deliberate work regarding community reinvestment as well as its role as a major service center. From what I have observed, the work has been both smart and limited in scale, and the priority continues to be an emphasis on community, as it should be. But some modest redevelopment with an accent on people with special needs should be a part of the mix. We can assist folks who were in shelter to instead live in neighborhoods and do so on a scale that doesn’t negatively impact the fabric of those communities within community. We can ensure that adequate and appropriate supports are in place for as long as these folks need. Existing families and these new residents would get to feel safe and eventually get to know each other. Natural supports would develop, as they do for all of us who generally live in the mainstream.
Big scale housing projects keep us separated, whether a gated community in Florida or some of the urban redevelopment programs of the 60’s. Small scale investments can result in our realization that we have a lot more in common than we knew, and social connectivity ends up saving money!