Is Colorado reaching a point of diminishing returns on the dollars spent on homeless services? Is the current funding stream — a mix of charitable philanthropy and government revenue — being spent wisely, or could it be applied more efficiently or effectively?
And does it really make sense to spend any more serving the homeless than we already do?
Those and other questions arise anew with the release of a sobering new report last week by the Common Sense Institute. The Colorado think tank has done a deep dive into the subject and crunched the numbers. The institute’s findings are eye opening to say the least.
As reported by The Gazette, it turns out that public and private spending on shelters, services, emergency response and health care for homeless people — just in the Denver metro area alone — is close to $500 million. Yes, nearly half a billion dollars a year. As the report notes, that’s $41,613 to $104,038 per homeless person in Denver based on a homeless population numbering anywhere from around 4,000 to over 10,000. And the population has been growing.
Some may look at that funding level as a measure of the need that is out there. Others may wonder why there hasn’t been more progress, given so high a level of commitment. Still others may conclude such a substantial outlay only confirms their worst fears: that no amount of funding ever will be deemed sufficient — or ever will turn the corner on this societal malady.
For us, the report raises serious doubts, both about the efficacy of current funding as well as calls for even more of it.
It’s both timely and ironic that the Common Sense report was released the same week that the Denver Department of Housing Stability released a draft of its five-year plan to address homelessness. The plan enunciates 14 goals to achieve by 2026. It’s more of a wish list than a strategy: “Create and preserve 7,000 homes…Preserve 950 income-restricted rentals…Create equitable access to housing options that meet residents’ affordability needs, provide opportunity to increase wealth through home ownership and improve their quality of life…Make it so residents experience homelessness rarely…” And so forth.
The goals also look like they could cost the city’s taxpayers a lot. Keep in mind Denver voters approved a $40 million-a-year, quarter-cent sales-tax hike just last fall to fund wide-ranging homeless services under City Hall’s umbrella. We opposed that proposal at the time for fear the revenue would do at least as much to build bureaucracy at City Hall as to rebuild the lives of homeless people out on the streets.
The Common Sense Institute’s report deepens our conviction that a serious systems check is in order by policy makers statewide before committing to even greater expenditures and ever more ambitious initiatives to end homelessness. Consider a few of the basic considerations that ought to redirect public policy on the homeless:
- Any program ignoring or enabling two of the chief factors driving hardcore, chronic homelessness on the streets — mental illness and substance abuse — will lead to a dead end. Just look at Denver City Hall’s Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond program. It provides free housing, health care, and other services — without requiring participants to maintain sobriety, look for jobs or treat their addictions. Good luck with that.
- Speaking of the city’s Social Impact Bond program, any approach to homelessness that provides a generous smorgasbord of services, including housing, is doomed to fail in the long run if it doesn’t move beneficiaries toward permanent self-sufficiency. The alternative is to consign the homeless to becoming permanent wards of the state, which isn’t fair to them or to the rest of society that would have to support them.
- The homeless are a complex and diverse group. Some can be helped; some cannot.
This third consideration is particularly important in deciding where and how to direct the substantial funding already in play. Many of Colorado’s homeless are among what could be called the invisible homeless — those staying temporarily with relatives or friends after an eviction or a foreclosure. Maybe they are sleeping in their cars while maintaining a job. Perhaps a domestic dispute or domestic violence drove them from their permanent address. The list goes on. Typically, most are eager to start their lives anew, given the opportunity. But then, there are the chronically homeless denizens of the streets. Their lifestyle has far less to do with any kind of economic misfortune than with bad choices or internal demons. Usually, what ails them is drug and alcohol addiction and / or mental illness. They probably represent the minority of homeless people in Colorado, yet they all too often are the public face of homelessness.
Providing the first group the services needed to resume productive lives can be an investment in the future of an entire community. Providing the second group resources merely to sustain a self-destructive lifestyle is good money after bad. We need to ask hard questions about how — and how much — we fund services to the homeless. A reassessment is long overdue.