Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Five-part series addresses cost of homelessness, funds allocated by governments, nonprofits

Research began a few months ago to find out what homelessness costs the average taxpayer.. The idea was spurred by New Hanover County commissioners and the city of Wilmington funding a joint initiative and then passing an ordinance prohibiting sleeping on county property, aimed at the homeless. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — $121 million: That’s the number Port City Daily, very conservatively, assessed has been spent in New Hanover County over the last two decades to care for the homeless population. 

Initially intended to cover the tri-county region, PCD narrowed its focus to New Hanover County solely, a substantial task in and of itself.

Research began a few months ago to find out what homelessness costs the average taxpayer. The idea was spurred by an ordinance put into place by New Hanover County commissioners, after it funded a joint initiative, Getting Home, with city of Wilmington. The goal of the program is to provide services to the homeless by pairing county social workers and Wilmington Police Department officers for street outreach.

In February, only two months after the program started, commissioners passed a new law prohibiting sleeping on county-owned property. It was aimed at homeless gatherings at the downtown library, the ire of many public complaints in the last few years.

Since, the topic has heightened, sometimes growing with contention.

“They were helping people and now they can’t find them,” New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, who dissented on the ordinance vote, said at a state of homelessness forum last month.

He was speaking how the homeless population scattered after the ordinance went into effect, making it more difficult for Getting Home team members to find those who need help. The city and county put $2.4 million toward Getting Home, a small fraction of investments made over the last 20 years.

But what about other funds funneled through the community annually, such as for supportive housing from nonprofits or even at hospitals? PCD found financial details are nuanced.

For instance, while nonprofit spending can be traced, pinpointing costs endured for homeless people in jail or those receiving medical care are not.

Figures the county and city gave sometimes weren’t just categorized for homeless individuals, either. Take, for example, social services or substance abuse treatment funding, both of which cover a wide array of people.

The $121 million number PCD landed on is inclusive of housing, considered the end goal to thwart homelessness. But there are also gaps in funding because some figures are not available, such as paid city and county staff time required to implement programs.

While a number on what it costs taxpayers on a local level has not been calculated, the nationwide average is about $35,000 per person per year for resources assisting one individual experiencing homelessness. 

In recent months, county and city officials have noted the growth of homelessness is getting worse. According to a presentation by Good Shepherd, the numbers have actually declined. Over the last decade, counts have fluctuated, with spikes following Hurricane Florence and the pandemic, and dips associated with more affordable housing and housing voucher acceptance.

But to even get those figures, money has to be spent for the Continuum of Care to do its annual count, covered in part one of the series.

CoC hashes out the initial basics of the homeless demographic, how it’s tracked and what kind of funding the Cape Fear Continuum of Care receives to maintain the data. The CoC, a cohort of tri-county entities all providing some sort of service to people in housing crises, plans a point-in-time count one day each year.

The numbers directly influence the funding doled out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The feds are the main source of appropriations for money dedicated to the homeless population, though some cycles through the state, some through the city and county and others through nonprofits.

Officials working on the annual count have all made one thing clear: It’s a fluid process and the numbers should be considered a snapshot, not a concrete determination.

Aside from the count being a challenging task, the many faces of homelessness must be considered. Though the chronically homeless, the most vulnerable, are typically the most visible, there are different definitions of being sheltered, unsheltered and even hidden.

The chronically homeless, typically 10% of the overall population, are the ones using the bulk of community resources, about 90%. This comes into play especially when dealing with medical expenses for either recurring conditions that cannot properly be treated on the streets or those looking for a place of respite, covered in part two of the series.

Public resources also include the cost it takes to “house” people in jail — yes, HUD considers people in jail with a home. Numbers associated with both the hospital and sheriff’s office are difficult to track since neither entity classifies “homeless.” While at Novant patients can self-report but rarely do.

While a bulk of money funnels into the community from HUD, the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County also doled out funds annually toward homeless initiatives. Cumulatively, they’ve allocated $9 million in direct resources over the last decade, with the bulk going to nonprofits, as addressed in part three.

Those nonprofits — five, specifically, were the focus for this series — spent more in one year than the government spent in 10. Good Shepherd, First Fruit Ministries, Vigilant Hope, Salvation Army and Domestic Violence Shelter and Services collectively spent $11 million to offer shelter, food, employment services, housing assistance, mental health support and guidance to those experiencing homelessness.

What PCD uncovered in part four of the series was the diversity of people considered without a home. Those fleeing from domestic violence or human trafficking, even people recently incarcerated and back in society looking for a fresh start, often find themselves without adequate, stable shelter.

The same nonprofits PCD interviewed mostly agreed the end result was to get their clients back to housing. A housing first approach has been touted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness as the best practice for consistency, which was the crux of part five in the series. The policy does not require individuals to obtain mental health or substance use treatment to retain housing, either, ultimately lowering barriers to what NAEH considers basic life needs.

Not everyone agrees with the approach, as expressed recently by city council member Luke Waddell. According to the National Library of Medicine, one in five homeless people have a substance use disorder or mental health illness. Waddell views housing first as a “blanket hand out.”

Addressing substance use was included in the series, since it does impact the homeless population. Between the county’s $25 million toward The Healing Place, a 200-bed detox center and emergency shelter, or the reopening of The Harbor, a treatment and recovery facility, money has been allocated to assist root causes of living on the streets.

Some of that funding for substance use treatment comes from opioid settlement funds. The city and county have been discussing how to appropriate the funds, and recently decided continuing the Getting Home initiative should be a priority.

After months of research, dozens of interviews and a dive into which entities support those experiencing homelessness, “The Cost of Homelessness” came to fruition. 

Though PCD did not cover every dollar and every entity assisting the homeless population, “The Cost of Homelessness” series provides an adequate grasp on what kind of money is being allocated to help. It also addresses just how much more still needs to be done.

Catch up on the five-part series:

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