Australia’s six-month moratorium on evictions is due to end soon. Some states have extended the moratorium, but when it ends that’s likely to force even more Australians into housing insecurity and outright homelessness. The moral and health arguments for housing people are clear, but many people are unaware of the financial cost we all bear for not fixing homelessness.
Social commentator Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece, Million-Dollar Murray, for The New Yorker in 2006. It’s the story of two Nevada police officers who spent much of their day dealing with homeless people such as six-foot-tall ex-marine and chronic alcoholic Murray. They regularly picked up Murray and drove him to hospital, drying-out clinics, the police lock-up and mental health facilities.
His bills were so legendary the policemen worked out, based on his health care alone, it would have been cheaper to house him in a hotel with his own private nurse. When not drunk, Murray was a charming, smart, talented chef. By the time he died of intestinal bleeding, they calculated the cost of Murray’s homelessness over a decade was US$1 million.
Those two Nevada policemen did something that is rarely done anywhere – they calculated (OK, roughly) the cost to the taxpayer of one man’s homelessness. And, in doing so, they showed, as Gladwell pointed out: "The kind of money it would take to solve the homeless problem could well be less than the kind of money it took to ignore it."
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No one keeps track of the costs.
In Australia, despite government efforts to house people during the pandemic, we still see many on the footpath with their bags and begging signs. They are mostly the men. Women tend to find other ways to manage their homelessness such as couch surfing or staying with adult kids or extended family.
Beyond the human tragedy, what most passers-by fail to see is the cost of homelessness to us all. It includes the bills for police and ambulance call-outs, prison nights, visits to emergency departments, hospital stays and mental health and drying out clinics.
These expenses are rarely collated and tabulated to find the true cost of homelessness to the public. The costs are dispersed over so many government agencies and facilities that they are managed in a piecemeal way, as they always have been in Australia. The result is a hefty hit to the public purse.