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Housing The Homeless Not Only Saves Lives -- It's Actually Cheaper Than Doing Nothing

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It's cheaper to give homeless men and women a permanent place to live than to leave them on the streets.

That’s according to a study of an apartment complex for formerly homeless people in Charlotte, N.C., that found drastic savings on health care costs and incarceration.

Moore Place houses 85 chronically homeless adults, and was the subject of a study by the University of North Carolina Charlotte released on Monday. The study found that, in its first year, Moore Place tenants saved $1.8 million in health care costs, with 447 fewer emergency room visits (a 78 percent reduction) and 372 fewer days in the hospital (a 79 percent reduction).

The tenants also spent 84 percent fewer days in jail, with a 78 percent drop in arrests. The reduction is largely due to a decrease in crimes related to homelessness, such as trespassing, loitering, public urination, begging and public consumption of alcohol, according to Caroline Chambre, director the Urban Ministry Center’s HousingWorks, the main force behind Moore Place.

One tenant, Carl Caldwell, 62, said he used to go to the emergency room five to seven times a week, late at night, so he could spend the night there. “You wouldn’t believe my hospital bills,” Caldwell, who hasn’t had health insurance for years, told The Huffington Post. Caldwell was a teacher for 30 years and became homeless five years ago, when he lost his job and his roommate moved out.

While living on the street, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The disease was particularly challenging for Caldwell, who said he spent his days “trying not to get robbed or killed” and trying to find bathrooms and shelter from freezing weather. Since he moved into Moore Place when it opened in March 2012, Caldwell has gained a regular doctor and has undergone radiation. Now his cancer is in remission. Without having to worry about where he will sleep, he can take his medicine regularly and keep it in his mini fridge.

“Moore Place saved my life,” Caldwell said. “When you’re homeless, you are dependent on everybody. Now I am independent and can give back." Caldwell said he regularly helps feed homeless people now and has reconnected with family members he hadn’t spoken to in years.

Chambre said she expects Moore Place tenants’ mental and physical health to continue to improve with consistent access to health care. “The idea of having a primary care doctor was just a fantasy when they were living on the street,” said Chambre. “Now they all have a regular doctor.”

Moore Place is the first homeless facility in Charlotte with a “housing first” model. Housing first is based on the notion that homeless individuals can more effectively deal with other issues –- such as addiction, employment and physical or mental health -– once they have housing. The other permanent housing facility for the homeless in Charlotte does not follow the “housing first” model, requiring sobriety as a prerequisite.

“Charlotte also has several large shelters with very robust front doors,” Chambre said. “But you have to also have a back door -- a way for people to escape homelessness. Shelters are overcrowded, with people living there for years, which defeats the purpose of emergency shelters.”

Moore Place tenants are required to contribute 30 percent of their income -– which for many residents comes from benefits like disability, veterans or Social Security -– toward rent. The rest of their housing costs, which total about $14,000 per tenant annually, are paid by a combination of private and church donations, and local and federal government funding.

The land and construction for the facility cost $6 million, which Chambre predicted will be surpassed by the millions of dollars the facility will save in health care and incarceration costs.

The UNCC study is one of several studies that have found that providing housing first reduces the overall cost of homelessness.

UNCC assistant professor Lori Thomas, who directed the study, said she found the health care and incarceration improvement among the tenants particularly notable, given how vulnerable the tenants are. Most tenants have two or more disabling health-related conditions, and nearly half suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the study reported.

“This compassionate perspective is a better way to honor the humanity of a person, but it also works from a fiscally responsible perspective,” Thomas said. “This really is a win-win.”

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