We can — and must — prevent homelessness from becoming a death sentence 

Since late December, we at Street Sense Media have learned of the passing of four newspaper vendors. Each of their deaths are a harsh reminder of the impact that homelessness has on life expectancy. The oldest of the four was 70. The youngest, only 35. They were writers, artists, brothers, sisters and parents. Each contributed unique gifts to our community, and their premature deaths leave irreparable tears in its fabric. 

While the average American lives for 79 years, it is only 48 for persons who are homeless, according to the Health Care for the Homeless Project. The brutality of life on the streets takes its toll on lifespan in myriad ways, most especially for persons who had preexisting health conditions before they became homeless. It’s impossible to fully measure the lost potential that these early deaths signify, but we can all agree that in a nation of such wealth, we can and should be doing more to address this inequity.

What is perhaps most tragic is that we’ve long known that it is far more expensive to neglect homelessness than it is to solve it. A 2015 analysis of 828 chronically homeless adults in Washington, D.C. conducted by the Advisory Board Company found that the average cost to taxpayers for responses to emergency needs of these individuals was $40,843. The average cost to both house and provide them with case management services was $20,500.

Initially, the D.C. government embraced the Advisory Board report and invested heavily in an effort to move people from the streets into housing. But funding for this cause has waned. And despite fierce attempts to clear encampments of tent dwellers throughout the city, new, scattered tent communities keep appearing, including five tents that have recently been erected on the sidewalk in front of our offices on G Street near Metro Center. 

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been especially devastating for persons who are homeless, has also opened the door to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drastically reduce homelessness. As of October 2021, less than 25% of downtown D.C. office workers had returned to their offices. It’s now widely presumed that we are seeing a permanent shift in how, and more importantly where people work. It’s imperative that we make a massive investment of public funds to repurpose a large portion of what is now vacant office space for the provision of affordable housing to our most vulnerable neighbors. In the long run, that investment could ultimately pay for itself, as the Advisory Board study demonstrates.

The burden of this initial investment should be shared by the local D.C. and federal government, and similarly in communities across the nation. Such an investment would come tragically too late for Chad, Scott, Latisha, Collins and Ayub, the five Street Sense vendors who recently died. But it’s not too late for thousands of others who are homeless. Let us not pass up this opportunity to build a better, more equitable community. 

Brian Carome is the CEO of Street Sense Media. 

Correction (02.22.2022): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that five vendors had died since December 2021. Four vendors have died since December 2021.

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