It’s a Lot More Than Spare Change
By Eric Wright
Years ago, Lee Feldman, the former city manager in Palm Bay and now Ft. Lauderdale, and I had become good friends – not just professional colleagues. I had been asked to serve on the city’s Economic Development Council, to chair their Visioning Commission and Lee even invited my family to his home for a Passover Seder. This was not typical for pastors, so when he called about meeting for breakfast, I was sure there was something important on his mind.
Lee, in his direct but congenial style, got to the point: “We have a problem with homelessness in our community and frankly, I don’t know what to do.” We discussed the problem, but I simply had too many priorities and taking on homelessness wasn’t one of them. To this day, I regret my rather anemic response.
I don’t think I’m alone. For many, our only contact with the homeless are the disheveled people who stand at the intersections, with cardboard signs, waiting for a handout; making you feel bad if you don’t give something, but also questioning if you do give something. That changed for me personally when I visited my cousin in California and discovered his son, who is bipolar, was homeless. Too paranoid to accept any kind of psychiatric treatment or assistance his parents offered, he lived in the woods only a few miles from their beautiful home just east of Malibu.
Head Matter & Heart Matter
A great rabbi once said, “Wisdom is when there is no conflict between your heart and your head.” For many, the heart issue of homelessness is something that resonates with us. However, for all of us, the head issue of what this epidemic is costing our communities has to be grasped.
Leaders in this field like Andrae Bailey, CEO of the Central Florida Regional Commission on Homelessness, divide the homeless into two broad categories. The first is the “Episodic” homeless, who because of their circumstances are temporarily homeless. As Bailey said, “They measure their homeless experience in days or weeks.” The other group are the “Chronic” or long-term homeless, like my cousin’s son. These are individuals whose homelessness results from some form of mental, physical or emotional disability.
The Commission did a study on the cost of these chronically homeless individuals in our community and their findings were astonishing.
Here Are the Facts
The 37 people they tracked in Orange County were arrested a total of 1,320 times over the course of 10 years, almost always for non-violent offenses. The average booking cost per offense was $104, for a total cost to the community of $137,280. But it doesn’t end there; the 1,320 arrests resulted in an average incarceration of 24.8 days, totaling 32,736 days of incarceration, with an average daily cost of $103, for a total community cost of $3.5 million over 10 years for just these 37 people.
This doesn’t include the burden the chronically homeless put on hospitals, particularly emergency rooms. In the three-county area the study covered, following 107 chronically homeless people, the costs were $2.2 million per year.
Let’s put this in perspective: the cost per person per year in the three-county study area of Seminole, Orange and Osceola Counties, was $31,065 per person. When we multiply that times the estimated 1,577 chronically homeless people in those areas the total comes to $49 million a year!
It underscores the Commission’s premise that, “The cost of doing nothing isn’t nothing.” Other communities like Salt Lake City and Houston have made amazing progress, and we can too.