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UWF's Haas Center Studies Cost Of Homelessness

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

The 2018 Point-in-Time (PIT) survey of homeless people living in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties was conducted Wednesday, January 24.

Data from the count is important. Beyond that data, local officials have commissioned the University of West Florida to conduct a study on the cost of homelessness, which they plan to use to help determine their next steps in addressing the problem.

The last PIT survey in 2017 showed 758 homeless people living in the two-county area. Of those, 539 were men, 117 were veterans, and 135 were chronically homeless.

To help us understand the issue of cost, EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless Executive Director John Johnson lays out a scenario involving a person who’s been living on the streets for years.

“This is someone that may have been going to the ER, in and out of the jail system, panhandling, trespassing, whatever the case,” explained Johnson, as he then proposed consideration of the economics when that chronically homeless person is placed into housing and is set on a path to becoming a productive member of society.

“Then I look at the cost of doing nothing with that same person, you’ll find a significant difference and that difference passes on to the community.”

As an example, a 2017 report from the National Alliance to End Homeless shows a chronically homeless person costs the taxpayer an average of nearly $36,000 per year, with "supportive" housing cutting those costs by nearly 50 percent.

Johnson’s point is whether directly or indirectly, there’s a cost to the community and doing nothing can be more expensive.

That sentiment harkens back to homelessness expert Dr. Robert Marbut , who was was hired to assess the situation in the Pensacola area and make recommendations back in 2014.

“If you like what is going on now, just keep doing the same thing. I guarantee you’ll have a 20 percent increase in the next 24 months, if you do nothing, if you make no changes,” Marbut warned.

During the visit, Marbut shared his formula for success in reducing the number of homeless people in San Antonio. That includes his “Seven Guiding Principles of Homeless Transformation,” which focuses on root causes and recovery.

“Put the feeding right next to the mental health programs, the job training programs. Put the feeding right next to addictive disorders/substance abuse programs and you’ll get success,” said Marbut, who added that just feeding - alone and apart - enables homelessness and ultimately will result in increases in the population.

In 2014, Marbut spoke at a community forum and provided a list of recommendations that members of the City’s Task Force for Improving Human Services used to generate their own list of proposed actions for improving services for the homeless. But, Johnson, who chaired the panel, says that was almost four years ago.

“I wanted to reconcile what [Marbut] talked about in his recommendations, then do an analysis of the current state of homelessness in terms of cost,” said Johnson, whose goal is to bridge the cost study with Marbut’s study in order to provide meaningful information for service providers and a recommendation to the [Escambia] County Commission about a strategy moving forward.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
ECOH partner agency representatives divide into breakout groups to assess the community's response to homelessness.

ECOH and several partners came up with $20,000 to hire the University of West Florida Haas Business Center to conduct the cost study, beginning with a SWOT analysis.

“SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats,” said Allison Romer, an economic development coordinator at the Haas Center, of the exercise that be used with individual agencies. “Or in this case, we applied it to the community as a whole, looking at those internal strengths and weaknesses of what the community is already doing, what’s working and not working; and then those opportunities and threats, which are the external factors that have a tendency to impact the outcomes as well.”

Those who attended the EscaRosa Coalition’s general meeting earlier this month (Jan. 9) were called on to participate.

Mostly representing partner agencies, they were divided in breakout groups to assess the community’s response to homelessness. Again, think SWOT; strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

A short list of potential opportunities includes taking advantage of unused property in the area and utilizing it for housing and shelters, working more with faith-based communities, broadening the network with civic groups and businesses, and using social media more readily.

As for threats, number one on the list: reductions in funding. Also on the threat list is community perception of the homeless issue and resistance within the homeless community. Also of concern are healthcare issues including the lack of adequate mental, prescription and medical assistance; PTSD and substance abuse. Overcrowding within the criminal justice system was also listed as a threat to service providers’ efforts.

Romer says much of what they heard was expected.

“Transportation is clearly [going to] be an issue in both counties, especially the geography of Escambia with Century up to the north and then all the rural community in between and then Pensacola to the south,” Romer said. “Funding is always an issue. I think there is never enough financial resources.”

At the February meeting of the ECOH, Santa Rosa County partner agencies will take part in the SWOT analysis. When the group reconvenes, Pastor Deborah Schleich with God Be Love Ministry, who attended the January meeting, hopes they’ll seek the input of those they trying to help.

“Where are the homeless people in here to tell us [what] the weaknesses and strengths of this program and what you guys are doing,” questions Schleich.  "Where was the vet with the PTSD? Where was the woman, where was the people, because they’re the ones receiving the services.”

In the meantime, Haas Center staff will collect specific data on what it costs local agencies to treat the homeless population. Romer says they hope to present the findings of their study by late spring or early summer.