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Nearly $4 million per year in Erie County and City of Buffalo tax dollars could be saved by getting chronically homeless people into permanent housing, according to a plan by a coalition of area human services agencies to end homelessness.
In a report released Friday, “Opening Doors: Buffalo and Erie County Community Plan to End Homelessness,” the Homeless Alliance of Western New York found that the community could save as much as $8,893 per client by providing immediate, permanent housing for people who are chronically homeless.
The housing would have to include supportive services, such as counseling and treatment for addictions, but providing those services would still amount to a huge savings in tax dollars, the study found.
The savings per client is much greater than an estimate done in 2005 by lawyers from Neighborhood Legal Services, who calculated that county taxpayers could save at least $1,900 per year for each homeless client removed from the public assistance rolls.
The new study extrapolated savings figures from a study of Rhode Island’s “housing first program,” which found that unhoused chronically homeless people cost on average $31,671, mostly in hospital emergency room visits, emergency shelter, jail stays and other such expenses.
When the chronically homeless clients received housing, the costs to taxpayers fell to $22,778, with most of the expenses related to supportive services, the Rhode Island study found.
Applying the numbers to Erie County would amount to a potential savings of $3.9 million per year here, said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.
The organization determined that 436 people in Erie County last year were considered chronically homeless – defined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as being without a home for one year or longer or four or more times in a three-year period.
If county residents and lawmakers don’t want to pay attention to homeless people for moral reasons, they can’t ignore the fiscal implications, said Zuchlewski.
“Money is the universal language,” he said.
Permanent housing costs a fraction of the $125 per night it costs to house someone in the county jail or the $1,500 to $2,000 in expenses for a night’s stay in an area hospital – two places where chronically homeless people often find themselves.
Advocates for the homeless have known about the cost savings for decades, said Zuchlew-ski, “but now the data is conclusive.”
Zuchlewski hopes the study captures the attention of county lawmakers and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz in particular for a serious discussion during deliberations over the 2013 county budget.
Providing more permanent housing for the chronically homeless “just makes too much sense not to do this,” he added. “This community has to have this discussion.”
Most of the cost savings would be achieved in Medicaid, he said.
“Once people are given permanent housing, they’re more likely to treat their addictions and other health problems,” he said.
The Homeless Alliance plan updates a previous plan in 2005. It calls for chronic homelessness in Erie County to be reduced by 20 percent annually and be eliminated by 2017.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com