Dallas County taxpayers spend about $50 million a year sheltering, treating and jailing the homeless.The full story is worth a read. Good stuff, though perhaps I especially appreciated it because it provides ammunition for my own position about how best to manage this troublesome, high-cost population, which is a problem in every big city.
Perhaps half of that is for the 600 to 1,000 toughest cases – many of whom visit emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, jails so often they're called "frequent fliers." These very ill people repeatedly cycle through a massive, uncoordinated system of local, state, federal and private institutions at alarming speed and alarming cost. And despite the millions being spent, many of these chronically homeless people remain in shelters and cardboard boxes.
"What do we get? They're still homeless," said Mike Rawlings, who serves as Dallas' homeless czar. "Somebody would be fired in the business world if they got those results."
The $50 million figure was arrived at by totaling the annual expenses of more than a dozen local taxpayer-funded agencies. It is a conservative figure because some agencies do not track how much they spend on the homeless. And it does not include at least $23 million in private funds spent locally caring for the homeless.
Some of the costs to taxpayers are predictable: the police officers who get the homeless off the street, and the places that house them and treat their mental and physical illnesses. But there are plenty of other expenses: for ambulance runs, removing trash from homeless camps, even staffing for the city's drunk tank.
Dallas officials are working to end this costly cycle by shifting money into housing that would come with services to help people remain stable. But there's a major shortage locally of this type of housing.
"Texas is called a bootstrap state. But we're probably costing ourselves a lot of money by insisting on that bootstrap approach," said Dr. Ron Anderson, president and CEO of the Parkland Health & Hospital System. Parkland Memorial Hospital spent about $15.6 million providing health care to homeless people in 2008.
For the truly chronic homeless (and as the article notes, the government knows who they are: Dallas police have a list of them), it makes a lot more sense to pay for semi-permanent housing, long-term aid and programming. The alternative is the current "ricochet" effect described in the article where homeless people bounce back and forth between different government systems racking up massive, often needless expenses.
Think about it this way: If between 600 and 1,000 homeless people account for half the total homeless costs, Dallasites are already spending $36.5 million per year on this population, which amounts to somewhere between $36,500 and $60,000. That's a middle class salary - enough to pay their rent, groceries, meds, and caseworkers to check in on them and help them manage their affairs. Plus their healthcare costs can be absorbed much less expensively if its performed oustide of the emergency room.
It's a lot of work to tally up the costs from all those different agencies, and as Horner says, $73 million is probably a conservative estimate for what's being spent in Dallas. Looking at the cost issue from 30,000 feet, as this article attempts to do, it's evident all that money could be spent on this small, identifiable handful of people more wisely and effectively.