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What’s the cost of homelessness?

Nonprofit leaders say the homeless cycle is fueled by a lack of affordable housing and employment options

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One chronically homeless person can cost taxpayers an average of $35,500 a year, according to a 2017 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Meleah Spencer, CEO of The Kitchen Inc., said without stable housing, people experiencing homelessness also can create high public costs by cycling in and out of jails, hospital emergency rooms and psychiatric centers.

Emergency room bills without insurance can range from $150 to thousands of dollars for a single visit, according to Springfield Business Journal research. Locally, it costs $62-$66 daily to house a person in the jail, according to past SBJ reporting.

“We, as taxpayers, are paying for that. We, as philanthropists, are giving back and helping along with other agencies and our entire network of community services,” said Spencer, whose agency provides housing and case management services to the homeless population. “We’re all paying for it.”

Locally, the number of homeless people seeking services from nonprofits has stayed steady over the last few years, according to nonprofit officials. They say it’s because there’s a cycle of homelessness in the community fueled by a lack of affordable housing options and employment opportunities.

Adam Bodendieck, director of homeless services for Community Partnership of the Ozarks, said the nonprofit is seeing more people enter the system as they help place others in housing programs throughout the community, which causes the number of homeless people to level out. The CPO houses the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness, which is the local regional planning body for coordinating homeless services and funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care program, according to the CPO website. Its January point-in-time survey recorded 141 newly homeless people, he said.

At The Kitchen, the 50-bed emergency shelter is constantly full, Spencer said. The annual operational cost for the shelter is $200,000, she said.

In January, The Kitchen recorded 300 people living in 90 units through the nonprofit’s various housing programs. In 2019, the nonprofit served 577 people, up 7% from the year prior.

Nonprofit leaders say the cycle of homelessness won’t break without help from the entire community.

“I think that what we have to do as a community and business owners, rather than wiping our hands and saying, ‘Not in my backyard,’ is coming together and having more conversations and realizing the services that are available,” Spencer said. “How can we work together so that it’s not anywhere?”

Social effects
Jason Hynson, executive director of Victory Mission, said the homeless population also can have a social effect on businesses. He’s experienced that firsthand through the nonprofit’s work with rehabilitation programs, affordable housing, case management, an emergency shelter and a food pantry.

Hynson said he’s seen how homeless people can create trash and unwanted attention to neighborhoods and local businesses. In February 2019, Victory Mission partnered with The Kitchen to hold its nightly meal program and chapel services at The Kitchen’s Franciscan Villa property in the Grant Beach neighborhood.

“We basically walked 85 people from the Vets Coming Home center down Chestnut [Expressway] to Grant Beach. … When you move people who socially don’t play to the norms, there’s definitely a cost,” Hynson said. “It created more foot traffic; the business owners saw increased trash. When I met with the owners of those businesses, they were not pleased with what we were doing, and we had created a problem for their investments.

“I felt like I was ruining their neighborhood, and I didn’t know how to solve it.”

Hynson said that’s when the Victory Mission created stricter requirements for its programs. Participants must now apply for the programs and are expected to complete classes and become members of the nonprofit’s choir.

“All these things say, ‘This isn’t a free ride,’” Hynson said of the new requirements. “Without accountability and expectations, we’re creating more of a problem than a solution.”

Spencer declined to comment on the 2019 partnership with Victory Mission.

Hynson said the programs are now housed near Commercial Street, where Victory Mission officials are trying to be involved in the district and local businesses. The yearlong program, called Restoration, costs $10,000 for one person, Hynson said. There are currently 40 men enrolled.

Searching for employment
A search on Indeed.com for part-time and full-time jobs in the Springfield area generated nearly 4,200 entry-level job listings.

Local nonprofit leaders say the reason why chronically homeless people aren’t working is not a matter of having enough vacant positions, but the barriers employers can create.

For instance, Bodendieck said some of the issues that led people to being homeless, such as past felonies and addictions, also keeps them from getting a job.

“If you’re willing to work, but no one is willing to hire you, you’re stuck,” he said. “We have a lot of folks who are homeless but are the hardest workers we’ve ever seen. They just need the opportunity.”

Bodendieck said CPO is working with up to 50 people a month to get them IDs so they can get social security and apply for employment. If a homeless person is offered a job, Bodendieck said they then have to figure out where they’re going to shower, get the clothes they need and where they’re going to leave their belongings during the day.

Minimum wage also isn’t enough to get someone off the streets, Spencer said, noting the $9.45 hourly wage would have to cover the cost of housing, utilities, health care, food and transportation.

Hynson said businesses need to offer more employment opportunities in collaboration with nonprofits that are helping people turn their lives around.

“Put your money where people are being valued and empowered. We aren’t going to settle for clothes, food and shelter as the end goal,” he said. “We want people to live a life of purpose and meaning, which means showing up to work and bringing things to the community as a contributing citizen.”

Hynson said the nonprofit has found a few opportunities for its graduates in local manufacturing jobs that pay up to $50,000 a year. But he said the opportunities are few and far between.

Affordable housing
Nonprofit leaders agree a key to breaking the cycle of homelessness is having more affordable housing options in Springfield.

It’s a conversation that’s been ongoing in the Queen City as city leaders prepare for the next 20-year comprehensive plan. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the median rent in Springfield in 2018 was about $730 and the monthly mortgage rate was nearly $950.

“What is it that’s going to get people off the streets? It’s housing, that’s the answer,” Bodendieck said. “We, as a community, are currently looking at situations where we don’t have an abundance of decent affordable housing accessible to folks with barriers, like previous felonies and evictions.”

Spencer said the business community needs to utilize affordable housing funding resources, such as tax credits for developers. She suggested those developments provide case management services to help them achieve their goals.

“The key, though, is having those wraparound services in those areas or developments to make sure we’re really helping connect with any barriers that could lead them to homelessness again,” she said.

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