A groundbreaking Canadian study reveals that it is less expensive and more beneficial to find housing for people with mental illness rather than pay for the social problems that come with homelessness, such as policing, temporary shelters and health care.
The findings come from a $110-million study started in 2008 in five Canadian cities — with 2,000 participants in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Moncton – and was the largest research study in the world focusing on homelessness and mental health.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada used a federal grant to measure the impact of placing an emphasis on housing, by getting people off the street first. The dramatic results showed a “housing first” approach to homelessness and mental illness led to considerable improvement in peoples’ physical and mental health and was a good way of transitioning people off of the streets.
The At Home program provided housing for the homeless and mentally ill which in turn created more opportunities for program participants to seek treatment, find employment and become a part of their community.
Researchers discovered that the housing-first approach not only kept people off the streets long term and allowed more opportunities to improve their lives, it also cost taxpayers less.
People who are severely mentally ill and chronically homeless use an average of $225,000 a year in community services.
Providing housing and support costs an average of $19,582 per person. But the avoided costs are much greater at $42,536 on average, because people who live in a home are put in hospital less often, make fewer emergency room visits and do not use shelters as often.
For every $1 spent providing housing and support for a homeless person with severe mental illness, $2.17 in savings are reaped because they spend less time in hospital, in prison and in shelters.
“It’s not just about the money. It’s what you get back from the investment that matters,” said Paula Goering, the lead investigator for the project.
With a Housing First approach, the money goes toward creating independence and stability rather than shelters and prisons, she said.
While about 30,000 Canadians are homeless, the research focused on the 10 per cent who are chronically homeless, almost all of whom suffer from mental illness.
Homeless people do not usually get housing and rehab until they are sober or taking medications; they also have little choice on where they live.
The Housing First philosophy proves that giving someone a place to live creates stability and allows them to deal with their addiction, unemployment and lack of education.
“A house is so much more than a roof over one’s head. It represents dignity, security and, above all, hope,” said Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
The results have convinced the federal government to adopt this housing-first approach.
“We want lasting results and that’s what housing first has demonstrated it can bring,” said Canada’s Minister of State for Social Development, Candice Bergen.
Bergen said groups that currently get federal funding will have to put 65 percent of it to programs like At Home. She pointed to the savings on “emergency services, hospitals, police and shelters.”
“The cost that is borne by the taxpayer is big,” she said.
The Mental Health Commission will train workers in 18 other cities on the Housing First model and how best to adapt it to local needs. Participants in the study will be tracked for several more years to determine the long-term impact.
Homelessness is estimated to cost the Canadian economy about $7-billion a year.