Chronically homeless persons cost thousands in Oregon services

By Katherine Driessen, The Oregonian, Sept. 16, 2013

Sleeping in doorwayFunding services for the chronically homeless is often packaged with a social or moral appeal. A Washington County-based study is attempting to determine if there’s a new economic case to be made.

Specifically, what is the financial burden chronically homeless residents place on emergency services like emergency room treatment? Could permanent housing for the chronically homeless alleviate those costs?

The study, conducted by Portland State University’s Northwest Economic Research Center and Washington County Vision Action Network, has been looking at the first question since January 2012. It’s a question being asked across the country — in large part spurred by “homelessness czar” Philip Mangano‘s national “Housing First” push. His idea, in a nutshell, is to put money toward finding the chronically homeless permanent housing rather than short-term fixes like emergency shelter.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners heard a study presentation Tuesday.

“Most of us are businessmen here,” Washington County Chair Andy Duyck said in reference to the commissioners. “And the dollar counts, and if you’re wasting money you need to reassess why you’re doing things that way.”

In Washington County, across four service sectors (medical, law enforcement, mental health and emergency shelter), the average chronically homeless person cost about $15,000 during a three-year period.

The findings are in line with similar studies being conducted across the country, NERC Director Tom Potiowsky said. The study looked at 84 chronically homeless people: 20 individual adults, 27 adults with families and 37 children from families. Individual adults, or those without families, cost the most across the three-year period, running an average $40,156. Family adults cost an average $10,801 and family children $4,073.

The costs per service were as follows:

– Medical Services: $875,323
– Emergency Shelter: $195,544
– Mental Health: $146,585
– Law Enforcement: $29,021

Potiowsky said the law enforcement costs may be higher than the study indicates because it’s difficult to measure on a per-person basis the cost of a police intervention.

Washington County contributed about $10,000 to the $42,000 study. Duyck said Tuesday the county would financially support the second phase, which will look more specifically at the service cost breakdown and compare them with service costs of formerly homeless people living in long-term housing.

Vision Action Network Director Karin Kelley-Torregroza said the study is a new way to frame the issue of homelessness. When Mangano spoke at a Westside Economic Alliance breakfast in 2012, it help recast the issue, she said.

The most recent point-in-time count puts the area’s homeless population at 1,153. But the homeless population is notoriously difficult to track, so that number is mostly used to identify geographic and service trends.

Kelley-Torregroza said the next phase of the study could take another six to nine months.