My Turn: Homelessness is expensive


Published: 6/7/2021 3:40:59 PM

I recently learned how much it costs to support a person living on the street and was shocked! I’d like to propose that we house them. What you say? How can we afford that?

My eyes were opened two years ago when I read an article about Finland. I was shocked to learn they had homeless living on the streets of Helsinki — and so were they. They decided to do something about it.

They developed a philosophy that has become known as Housing First. The approach is to provide housing, no questions asked, and offer support services. This type of housing is called “permanent supportive housing.” They found that a large number of newly-housed people were able to reintegrate into society, get a job, and pay for their own housing, or at least a portion of it, over time.

But, what does all this cost?

The article on Finland led me to an organization in New York City, called Breaking Ground. I reached out to them to find more. In the 1990s they did a study of what it would cost to house people vs what it costs to support a person living on the street. The economics looked favorable, so with city taxpayer funding, they purchased a building in Times Square, an area where lots of the homeless lived, and today Breaking Ground owns and manages over 4,000 beds in NYC.

A few years ago, they again looked at the economics and discovered that the city was saving over $10,000/person/per year for each person housed vs. a person living on the street, when the cost of emergency services etc. were taken into account.

Breaking Ground led me to Pine Street Inn, in Boston, and then to Franklin County. Last month Emily Greene and I hosted a workshop on this topic to find out more.

We heard from a person who was homeless twice who now owns her own home, and learned about Pine Street Inn’s challenges and successes, and what the Three County Continuum of Care is doing in our area. While we must advocate that people receive a living wage — not the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25/hour ($1,160/month) or Massachusetts minimum wage of $13.50 ($2,160/month) — so people can afford housing without subsidies in the future, we also need to provide housing for those who are homeless today.

So how do we do this? Is money the only obstacle?

Speakers in other workshops of the GG/FCCPR forum on housing acknowledged that finding the money is not easy, but it can be done if a community shows their commitment with some financial support, no matter how small. For example committing some funds via the Community Preservation Act (CPA) or dedicating income from hosting a cell tower.

Town zoning can also be a barrier. If a town has zoning that restricts where multi-family housing can be built, stipulates a minimum size for an apartment, or the number of people that are allowed to live in one housing unit, it makes creating affordable housing more difficult.

While Greenfield’s zoning is quite progressive, as an urbanized community we have to face the reality that we do not have an infinite amount of land, and we may need to shrink required lot sizes or adopt other ways to accommodate new housing. With housing, as with land, the economics of supply and demand can be brutal. As housing becomes scarce and prices go up!

Finally, when we build new housing, renovated or new, we need to do it right. We need to ensure that the energy we use, for cooking, lighting, electronic gadgets, heating and cooling, does not emit climate change emissions. We cannot afford to use fossil fuels. Look at the billions already spent on cleaning up damage caused by more severe storms caused by climate change.

Democracy is hard work. There is so much to learn to make informed decisions that are good for our communities today and for coming years.

Please join me in making a commitment today to embrace the Housing First approach and work toward housing and supporting the homeless. Let’s ask existing organizations working on this issue how we can support them; be open to recommendations to change our town’s zoning and housing regulations if necessary; and ask for more federal and state support to build permanent supportive housing in Franklin County. And let’s also support living wage legislation.

To learn more about the economics of Housing First, and to get involved in advocating for safe affordable housing for all, go to GG/FCCPR’s web site

Nancy Hazard is a member of Greening Greenfield (GG) and Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, FCCPR. She can be reached at


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