Research team finds housing for homeless saves millions of dollars

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Housing for homeless alcoholics saves millions of dollarsMichelle Garner, assistant professor of social work, was in on the ground floor of an eye-opening UW research project, five years in the making. The study determined that providing housing for some alcoholics actually saves taxpayers' money — a lot of it.

Reported in the April 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the peer-reviewed study found that providing housing to chronically homeless people with severe alcohol problems who use the most community resources can dramatically cut their costs to the public.

The Housing First program in downtown Seattle saved taxpayers more than $4 million over the first year of operation. During the first six months, the cost to the taxpayers for services used by the 95 residents was reduced by 53 percent, even after considering the cost of administering the housing. This is a savings of nearly $2,500 per month per person in health and social services, compared to the per-month costs of a wait-list control group of 39 homeless people.

This population is a common urban challenge, tending to cycle through publicly funded health and criminal justice systems, Garner explained. Traditional responses, such as emergency shelters, abstinence-based housing and treatment programs, fail to reverse these patterns. This study found that providing housing — without the attached string of sobriety or being in treatment — reduced hospital and criminal justice costs and prompted a decrease in residents' use of alcohol.

Garner, the original coordinator on the research project, was involved in all phases of the research. "This project sits at the nexus of two important areas of contention," Garner said. "One is in assumptions about rigidity of treatment for addictions. The second is in assumptions about the threshold of basic human rights.

"Historic approaches to this population have used housing as a contingent incentive to get individuals into addictions treatment; with failing results for many people. I think the importance of this study is that it supports the idea that housing, in and of itself, is an integral, stabilizing feature of peoples' lives."

Garner said she hopes these study findings will help people reconsider the assumptions underpinning current sentiments and policies regarding housing and other basic human rights and approaches to addiction treatment. "This has been a great project and a wonderful team of community and academic researchers," she added. "This project should make a positive difference in the lives of a lot of people."

The findings have been widely reported in local and national print and broadcast media, including NPR radio, the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report. Here is a partial list of the coverage:

Written by: 
Beth Luce / April 3, 2009
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Associate Director of Communications, or 253-692-4536