Ending homelessness would cost far less than treating it

I’m calling for a war. 

This nation seems to love spending its money on wars. Right now it already seems to be waging war on the homeless. I propose we switch targets. Instead of waging war on the homeless, I’d like us to begin waging war on the conditions that create homelessness. The people without homes are not the problem. The factors that make them incapable of finding homes and the trauma they endure while waiting for assistance is the problem. 

I was a substitute teacher before the pandemic. My unemployment benefits were cut off in June 2021 — a month during which there was no hope of returning to my previous employment even if I wanted to. So I sought other avenues. I looked for friends to live with. Family was not a safe option. I wasn’t offered any resources to help with paying my rent, so I had nowhere to go. 

Unfortunately, I was in no condition to be working anywhere either. The pandemic had gutted my life: Four deaths, a very traumatic break-up, and the loss of the place I’d been renting for the previous two years. My 20-year-old car had no air conditioning and was beginning to really feel its age. But I was trying. An Uber Eats background check lingered in limbo until after I had to make the hard decision to let go of my car and pack my things into storage and go looking for another way forward. 

I probably could have qualified for disability payments. But that, too, is a six-month process and I was trying to find a way to survive. Easing access to disability would be a huge help to people experiencing homelessness. I think a lot of trouble could be saved by conditionally approving access to any benefit and then allowing someone to prove their need for it. The alternative is contrary to our own principles of justice in this country. We supposedly assume innocence until proof of guilt, but for the crime of being unable to work we sentence people to unsafe living conditions. Then, we force them to prove themselves innocent of wrongdoing or malingering before they are entitled to a basic standard of living. 

Also, the government shouldn’t have cut benefits until their own offices were once again open and operating normally. What business does the government have telling me that I should be out working when its own offices are holding up my access to work? It took 43 days to finish a process that took two weeks pre-pandemic. If they’re not back to business as usual, why am I expected to be?

This is how I found myself wandering the streets of Washington D.C. on July 4, 2022, without enough money for a safe place to sleep.It wasn’t the first time this happened in the last year. I ventured out of my home state in search of ways to earn with whatever tools I had at my disposal. This led me to a series of cities where I struggled to keep a roof over my head in hostels, sometimes ending up on the streets or in shelters. 

On this night, it was the streets, because the D.C. shelters were full. I no longer felt safe in the encampment on McPherson Square where I briefly resided. Someone died there recently and I haven’t been back since. I looked for a shaded place to lay my blanket. A friend was supposed to be helping me with a tent today, but that night I had to make do with a blanket. I made my bed near Dupont Circle. And as I discovered shortly after laying down, I had missed the cockroaches. I must have made my bed on a nest of them for what came next. I’m allergic to them. Not ten minutes after laying down I was covered in blotches. Swollen patches of skin. Itching everywhere. 

I am a former EMT, and didn’t want to call 911 if I could make it there under my own steam. I didn’t want to waste public resources on an ambulance. Nevertheless, public resources were wasted last night. My visit last night probably cost more than double what a month of shelter would cost. A low-cost 24/7 urgent care with a hotline to call for transportation could have helped. But the emotional and physical damage from this ordeal is immeasurable. The only way to reduce it is to find a way to offer safer places to sleep than outdoors. 

The public resources that aren’t being spent to house me are being spent elsewhere. The public resources that could be helping me get back on my feet are instead being used to treat injury and illness that never would have happened to someone with a roof over their head. Why are we so penny wise and pound foolish? In an effort to spend less on sheltering  the homeless, we cost ourselves so much more in treating the symptoms of homelessness. That price tag includes the cost exacted in human suffering. 

It’s a travesty, really. The public pays more to keep us homeless than they’d pay to give us homes. The math checks out. My suffering is more costly to the taxpayers of this country than my comfort and financial rehabilitation would be. A homeless person costs approximately $30,000-$50,000 per year in supportive services. Two years of that is enough to pay for an entire house in some cities. There are about 500,000 homeless individuals in the U.S. tThe price tag to treat the malady of homelessness works out at least $15 billion per year. How does it make any sense not to just fix it? I’m a first generation college graduate. I devoted my life to public service up until I slipped through the cracks — more like gaping chasms — in the social safety net to end up here. And I’m pretty peeved about it. 

People die on housing waiting lists. Six months is the minimum wait for housing that I’ve heard. In D.C., they’re still housing people who’ve been on the list since 2004. I’ve tried living in the shelters. They’re dangerous and crowded and just all around not healthy places to be. Again,our suffering costs more than our comfort and healing would.

All around me I see the conditions people point to as the root cause of the plight of homelessness. Mental illness. Drug addiction. I wonder how it is that people think anyone deserves this. Addiction and mental illness are signs of trauma. And how much of it is actually caused by the condition of homelessness? Why haven’t we stopped this yet? Why are we continuing to allow this drain on our society, both in terms of financial cost — and in terms of the cost to our human potential? 

Belle Ren is a vendor with Street Sense Media. 

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.