It costs more to leave a homeless person living on the street than it does to help them transition back into society. That fact means that most approaches to homelessness make for a phenomenally bad investment of tax dollars. In Los Angeles, for example, the city spends over $2 billion a year to maintain the status quo for people living in places like downtown’s Skid Row.
If you give money to a nonprofit that works on homelessness, you probably think of it as charity. But one LA-area organization wants to reframe how we see the issue. The Weingart Center, which helps get homeless people back into regular jobs and housing, argues that we should be thinking of spending on homelessness as an investment–not a donation. In a new marketing campaign, the group’s mock-investment prospectus lays out the facts: Helping someone get off the street is in the self-interest of everyone living in the city, and not just a charitable gift.
“We started thinking about how to appeal to people and not just rely on pulling their heartstrings,” says Kevin Murray, CEO of the Weingart Center. “Make it clear that as much as we want them to have charitable intent, donating to address the problem of homelessness also should appeal to their self-interest. I think we make a pretty good case that donating to homeless people saves money directly, in addition to the benefits of a better city, better lifestyle, and better environment.”
The organization says that by spending $10,000, they can put a homeless person through an in-depth program that helps them get housing, food, a job (and the training to keep it), as well as take care of case management and follow-up support. By contrast, the city spends an average of $35,000 a year to leave someone on the street; that cost includes ER and hospital visits, mental health care, food stamps, and police funding. If someone goes to jail, the cost increases to an average of $47,000–and at the end of a year, someone may be no better off than they were initially.
Of course, just putting someone in the program doesn’t guarantee that they’ll succeed in getting permanently off the street. “Clearly it’s challenging,” says Murray. “You’re asking someone to change their life. There’s not anybody who wants to be on the streets, but there are people who find it difficult to do the things that you need to do to be off the streets. There are things that you and I take for granted–we have to get up, we have to go work, brush our teeth, follow society’s rules about drugs and alcohol. People have to decide they want to do this, and that is difficult.”
Still, Weingart got around 800 people jobs last year. “Those people not only are not a burden on the system anymore, and they’re not going to be a burden on the system in the future,” Murray says. “That’s opposed to a shelter–where you’re doing a needed service, but you’re not necessarily moving people to a different place in their life.”
While he thinks that homeless shelters still need support, Murray argues that ultimately–with a combination of programs like Weingart’s and a major overhaul of other social systems–it would be possible to eliminate homelessness. That’s a goal that some cities, like Salt Lake City, are already attempting with some success. Phoenix has eliminated homelessness among veterans.
“I do think it’s possible to eliminate homelessness, but one of the things that involves is getting rid of the issues that lead to homelessness in the first place,” Murray says. “Part of that is resources like low-income housing. But you also have to work with what got people there. Is there something about the criminal justice system that sends people there? Poverty in general? How do we deal with our mentally ill population?”
The problem can seem overwhelming. But by focusing on one life at a time, the organization believes it’s making a concrete difference–and now they’re hoping to convince others to see it as something that benefits the city as a whole, not just those getting off the street.
“This is about changing the paradigm of how you see your gifts,” says Murray. “We’re asking people to take their own self-interest into account.”