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Anti-homeless project saves L.A. County money, study finds

June 7, 2012 |  5:01 am

An ambitious program to provide permanent housing to some of Los Angeles County’s most hard-core homeless more than paid for itself, yielding a net savings of $238,700 over two years, officials say.

That is equivalent to $4,774 for each apartment provided under Project 50, according to a report that will be presented at a meeting Thursday of the Los Angeles County Interdepartmental Council on Homelessness.

The findings support a growing consensus across the country that getting the most entrenched street dwellers into permanent homes and providing them the services they need to stay off the streets can save municipalities money.

More than 51,000 people are homeless on any given night in the county, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. About a quarter of them are considered chronically homeless, meaning they have been homeless for at least a year and suffer from a serious physical, mental or substance abuse problem.

Project 50 was controversial because it did not require that people get sober before they were housed. But advocates of the so-called housing-first approach say a permanent roof provides the stability chronically homeless people need to get their lives back on track.

The project, championed by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, began in late 2007 with the goal of finding and housing the 50 most vulnerable, long-term homeless living on the streets of skid row in downtown Los Angeles. Since then, the number of participants has grown to 133, of whom 94 remain housed, seven are incarcerated, 12 have died and 20 left the program.

The study, conducted by a county research unit, compared 50 participants who moved into apartments in 2008 and 2009 to a similar group of homeless adults who did not join the program.

During the study period, which ended in 2010, the program cost $3.045 million, but generated $3.284 million in savings, the report said.

Mental health and substance abuse treatment costs for the participants increased partly because serious problems had gone largely untreated before they were admitted to the program, the report said.

But those costs were offset by savings generated because they were no longer cycling in and out of hospital emergency rooms, shelters and jails. Incarceration costs for program participants, for example, fell 28% in their first year in the program, compared to a 42% increase for non-participants. Medical costs for the participants fell 68%, compared to a 37% drop for the control group.

“My notion was that front-end investment in social services and stable housing would not only prove to be vastly more humane, but less costly for the public treasury,” Yaroslavsky said in an email. “This audit makes the case for accelerating the county's efforts to house the chronically homeless and provide them with the critical social services they need."


Project 50: Four walls and a bed

-- Alexandra Zavis