Laws that make it a crime to live as a homeless person make little sense from a moral vantage point. New data shows they make even less sense from a fiscal standpoint.
Over the past decade, municipalities in Florida’s Osceola County, just southeast of Orlando, have spent more than $5 million to repeatedly jail three dozen homeless people for quality-of-life offenses.
Rather than major crimes like assault or burglary, nearly every one of these arrests were because of violations of local ordinances prohibiting activities that many homeless people do to survive, such as sleeping in public or panhandling. Laws that criminalize homelessness can lead to an inescapable cycle of poverty.
The data was collected by Impact Homelessness, an advocacy group in central Florida. The organization identified 37 homeless people in Osceola County who were collectively arrested 1,250 times between 2004 and 2013 at a cost of $104 per booking. During that time, these people spent 61,896 days incarcerated at an average cost of $80 per day.
Altogether, Osceola County communities spent $5,081,680 over the past decade to repeatedly jail just 37 homeless people.
Each year, Osceola County municipalities paid approximately $15,000 each per individual to repeatedly incarcerate them. But this data actually significantly underestimates the amount of money the county spent on each homeless person because it doesn’t account for other major costs, including ambulances, emergency room admissions, and other medical treatments.
One of those individuals, whose name was not given, accounted for nearly $400,000 of that total alone.
“It makes no sense,” Andrae Bailey, CEO of Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, told ThinkProgress. “The police look bad, the community looks bad, and it does nothing to solve the problem.”
A far cheaper option than criminalizing and jailing the homeless is to provide them with permanent supportive housing. An average permanent supportive housing unit in Osceola County costs $9,602 per year, which includes $8,244 for rent and utility subsidies and $1,358 for a case manager (with a case load of 30 clients). In other words, each supported housing unit costs the county 40 percent less than what they’re currently paying to put homeless residents in jail.
“The answer is housing,” Bailey argued. “If mayors and county commissioners and community leaders want to solve a problem like Osceola County has, they need to invest in permanent supportive housing.”
However, right now there are just 26 permanent supportive housing units in the entire county, far less than what’s needed for the 237 chronically homeless individuals identified in last year’s homeless census.
Graphic by Adam Peck.