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A Florida County Spent Over $5 Million Jailing Homeless People. It Could've Spent Less On Shelter

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A Florida county has spent more than $5 million over the past nine years throwing chronically homeless people in jail, when it could have spent considerably less finding them shelter.

In its annual report on the state of homelessness in Osceola County, Fla., Impact Homelessness -- a local advocacy group -- found that the county continues to spend a pretty penny on imprisoning people who live on the streets, instead of helping to rehabilitate them.

The county has at least 300 homeless people sleeping on the streets every night. Most of those people have physical disabilities and/or mental illnesses. Many of them are veterans.

Impact Homelessness investigated the number of people who have been put in prison because of "crimes" related to homelessness, including panhandling, sleeping outside and trespassing. One section of the report focused on the "frequent flyers" -- people who have been arrested over and over again for homeless-related crimes.

The group identified 37 such individuals who, collectively, were arrested 1,250 times from 2004 to 2013. It cost the county $140 to book each person and an average of $80 per day to keep them jail. These figures only take into account arrest and incarceration. They don’t begin to touch upon special services, such as appearing before a judge, medical care or counseling.

The "frequent flyers" cost the county a total of $5,081,680, according to the report. That’s about $15,000 per person, per year.

"These are people who are disabled and mentally ill. They need their country and their community to help them," Andrae Bailey, CEO of Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, told The Huffington Post. "It makes no financial sense not to help them."

Part of what makes "no sense" is the fact that the county could spend considerably less money on finding housing for the homeless instead of temporarily sending them to jail.

Providing permanent supportive housing and ongoing case management for one person would come to $9,602 annually, according to the report. That's 35 percent less than what it costs to put homeless people in jail.

Not only is providing housing more cost-effective, it has also proven to work.

The Obama administration has pledged to put an end to veteran homelessness by 2015 and Salt Lake City, Utah, and Phoenix, Ariz., have already succeeded in doing so, The New York Times reported.

Two years ago, Phoenix, Ariz., identified 222 homeless veterans and the remaining 56 were placed in housing last December -- an accomplishment officials attribute to a collaboration between the city council and key state and federal partners, azfamily.com reported.

Phoenix used more than $6.5 million in federal grants to fight homelessness last year and the city council kicked in an additional $1.8 million in general funds.

Robert Stone, 56, was one such veteran in Phoenix who was homeless on and off for 15 years. Stone moved into an apartment last March and credits that with changing his life, The New York Times reported.

"I’m coming up on nine months sober, and a big part of it is because I have a roof over my head," he told the newspaper.

Phoenix hopes that its approach will serve as a guide for other cities struggling to get people off of the streets.

"We set about this challenge ... with a united purpose, and, as a result, Phoenix can take its place as role model city for gratitude and care towards veterans," Mayor Greg Stanton said in a statement.

Advocates are hoping that the policies demonstrated in Phoenix and Salt Lake City will be the ones that are replicated, instead of policies that prioritize criminalizing homelessness.

In July, activists were dismayed when Tampa, Fla., decided to criminalize homelessness.

"It costs roughly $50 a day to incarcerate one homeless person," Amanda Mole, editor of the Tampa Epoch, told HuffPost Live. "[During] the last homeless count that took place, we had 356 homeless people in jail."

That would cost Tampa more than $6 million a year.

"It always cost more [to keep someone in jail]. Sometimes it’s just astronomically more," Bailey said.

Advocates say in addition to hurting taxpayers, it's also grossly unfair to lock someone up because they need help.

"Shooing panhandlers away from major intersections might improve appearances, but it is expensive, inefficient and not a solution," The Tampa Bay Times wrote in an editorial. "Commissioners need to focus on more than aesthetics in considering how to address homelessness."

h/t: ThinkProgress.

Correction: This story originally confused Tampa Bay with the city of Tampa.

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