Report identifies cost-effective solution to chronic homelessness

July 15, 2019
Pennywise Cover Art: An illustration of someone holding a miniature house in the palm of their hand. In the background is an outline of the state of Washington.

Seattle may be losing the battle against chronic homelessness, but it doesn't have to.  The solution requires a 180-degree shift in the way society approaches the problem, according to a new report from Seattle University School of Law's Homeless Rights Advocacy Project (HRAP).

Law student Lavena Staten '20 JD surveyed dozens of academic and government studies on permanent supportive housing (PSH) and compiled the results in a new report, "Penny Wise But Pound Foolish: How Permanent Supportive Housing Can Prevent a World of Hurt."

"PSH is the most humane and cost-effective solution to chronic homelessness," Staten wrote in the report.

This approach provides housing without any time limits or other barriers, such as requiring sobriety or employment. PSH programs offer — but don't require — supportive services like counseling and rehab. Once housed, people who formerly experienced chronic homelessness can then improve their physical and mental health, address substance use, and seek education or employment. Hundreds of studies prove PSH works.

Professor Sara Rankin
Professor Sara Rankin

Professor Sara Rankin, who directs HRAP and edited the report, said cities typically prioritize law enforcement responses — such as move-along orders, sweeps, and even jail — in response to unsheltered homelessness. Some approaches might offer treatment or services, but not housing. Ultimately, these stopgap measures rack up extraordinary costs and fail to end homelessness. PSH, meanwhile, is proven to end homelessness in a more humane and cost-effective way.

"The answer to chronic homelessness is right in front of us. Cities need to see it and act on it," Rankin said. "Cities must stop being penny wise but pound foolish; they must look at the evidence and bring PSH to scale with the crisis."

Key findings of the HRAP report include:

  • PSH residents stay housed, with housing retention rates of up to 96%.
  • PSH residents avail themselves of services and treatment at higher rates than if they are not housed.
  • PSH lowers public costs through 81% fewer emergency room visits, 61% fewer hospital admissions, 80% shorter hospital stays, $9,000 in savings per person every two years through increased use of detox services, 84.8% less time incarcerated, and other measures.
  • PSH always results in gross savings.
  • PSH frequently results in net savings after factoring in the cost of housing and services.
  • When targeted to those who use the most services, PSH can generate gross savings of over $46,000 per person per year compared to leaving people on the streets.

Staten said even these numbers vastly underestimate the benefits of permanent supportive housing, because no study has yet evaluated all public costs and economic impacts associated with leaving unsheltered people on the streets.

The report calls on federal, state, and local governments to use PSH as an evidence-based model for solving chronic homelessness and to prioritize bringing such housing to scale.

The Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, founded in 2015, engages Seattle U Law students in effective legal and policy research, analysis, and advocacy work to advance the rights of homeless adults, youth, and children.

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