It would be so nice to help the homeless, if only we could afford it.
That has long been the position of public policy "realists" in a running argument against improving the quality of service for the poor on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds.
We can expect to see this kind of reasoning at work tomorrow when Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan rolls out his new budget, as a justification for not doing more to keep his government's promise to the poor.
But what if it costs more to let the homeless stay homeless than it would cost to help them?
In an intriguing new 150 page report prepared by academics from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Calgary, B.C. ends up spending some $55,000 per homeless person per year. The cost is split among emergency health care, policing and social services.
The Vancouver Sun reports:
The estimated annual cost of $55,000 per homeless person takes into consideration the high risk of infectious diseases. The study says some individuals can be slow to accept treatment because they don't recognize their mental illness, and may circulate through the court system because of a need to get drugs and food.
The study argues that if housing and support were offered to these people, it would cost the system much less - just $37,000 a year.
The report calculated that a capital investment of $784 million is needed to provide adequate housing to the 11,750 homeless people, and a further $148 million per year is required for housing-related support services.
But the study argues that after removing what the province is paying for health care, jail and shelters, and by spreading the capital costs out over several years, taxpayers could ultimately stand to save nearly $33 million annually. [emphasis added]
It appears that we're fast running out of excuses not to do right by the most vulnerable members of our society.
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