Perhaps surprisingly, the new approach seems to save taxpayers money. Typically, long-term rough sleepers are about 15% of all homeless people but use more than half of all public spending on services for the homeless as they cycle through emergency medical care, detox and jail. Denver, Colorado, reckons each of its 300 “heaviest utilisers” costs taxpayers $37,000 a year and that putting them straight into housing with intensive support from social workers would cost less than half as much. Calgary, the first Canadian city to use a housing-first approach, saw average annual savings of more than $30,000 per person from housing its most acute cases.
Savings from housing rough sleepers with less complex problems are lower, and sometimes non-existent, says Nicholas Pleace of the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York. But getting them off the streets at least means less wasteful use of public services: a police officer’s time is better spent fighting crime than arresting vagrants for trespass.
Critics view such programmes as rewarding bad behaviour: many of those housed continue to drink and use drugs, and remain unemployable. Advocates point to the harms avoided: a recent study in Canada that randomly assigned participants to housing-first or a standard programme concluded that housing them did more to improve their quality of life and their functioning in the community. Such findings help win over those who favour doing what is most humane, says Paul Howard of Community Solutions, a charity that champions the housing-first model. The criticism will fade further, he thinks, as more people come to see addiction as a grave health problem exacerbated by rough sleeping, rather than a choice."