A study recently released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) titled “Costs Associated with First-Time Homelessness for Individuals and Families” reviewed data from the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to determine differences in the costs associated with family homelessness. HUD looked at four cities: Houston, Texas; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Washington, D.C.; and upstate South Carolina to learn more about the costs of first-time family homelessness.
“These studies expand our knowledge of the true costs of homelessness and raise other questions that go far beyond dollars and cents,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.
The study identified great variation in costs from city to city. Houston, with over 2 million people in 2004, was the largest city studied and had 477 homeless families. With a population less than 600,000, D.C. had almost as many homeless families, at 410.
Houston had the most expensive transitional housing, while D.C. had the most expensive emergency shelter system for families. D.C. also topped the list for the most expensive permanent supportive housing.
Major cost differences were apparent even among programs of a similar type. Housing and services cost as little as $581 per month for an individual at a Des Moines, Iowa, emergency shelter. On the high end, housing and services for a homeless family in D.C. cost $3,530 per month.
The study analyzed data collected from HMIS to identify individuals and families who accessed homeless programs for the first time between July 1, 2004, and June 30, 2005. The study then used the HMIS data to examine the programs each household used for 18 months (30 months in D.C.) since the day they first accessed those programs.
Across the board, Washington, D.C.’s shelter and services were more expensive than the other three cities/areas. However, it is important to note that some of D.C.’s less expensive emergency shelter options were not used in the calculations shown in the table. The study excluded two less-costly programs in D.C. that place families in housing rather than the typically more-expensive emergency shelters, because there were not similar programs in other cities.
One program provides apartment style emergency shelter for first-time homeless families, with a cost per day of $79.80, which is significantly less than the $117.66 calculated from the table. However this option still costs slightly more than the daily cost of transitional housing. Another program, Community Care Grants, places qualifying families in mainstream permanent housing immediately after intake, without a shelter stay.
It is also important to note that the study did not account for the tight and expensive housing market and long waiting lists for assisted housing in D.C., explained HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.
D.C.’s high costs for family shelter and services could be attributed to the expensive housing market, or could be based on the programs left out which are less expensive.
However, HUD hopes this study and others will lead to more discussion at the local level of what type of housing/ shelter and services are most cost effective as cities make decisions for now and in future.
“Now we need to have serious discussion over what strategies are not only most cost effective,” Secretary Donovan said, “but how we can help individuals and families from falling into homelessness in the first place.”