02/09/2011 04:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Homelessness Is a Luxury We Can't Afford

If you work on Skid Row in Los Angeles long enough, you don't hear the sirens anymore. But they're still there... two, three, four times a day. Ambulance, Fire, Police. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in highly-trained personnel and specialized equipment, rolling out to meet another crisis head-on.

Housing all the homeless in Los Angeles would be expensive. But more and more data shows that, in spite of the price tag, it is cheaper than what we're doing now.

In 2007, the County of Los Angeles started Project 50, a "housing first" model that sought to provide housing, no strings attached, to the 50 most vulnerable people on Skid Row. After a year of program operations, they found that the cost of housing those people and providing them with the services they requested was no higher than the cost of constantly addressing crisis situations for the same people on the street.

More recently, the New York Times published an estimate that puts the cost of responding to the chronically homeless - about 10% of the homeless in Los Angeles County - at half a billion dollars. That's more than $100,000 per person, per year. To be sure, much of that cost is spent on good jobs for emergency services personnel; but do we have that capacity to spare?

And just how much does it cost to house someone, feed them, and give them supportive services like case management, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and primary health care? More like $40-50,000, depending on their overall health and well-being. The costs go down as time goes on and the individual becomes more stable.

As Americans, we highly value independence, self-sufficiency, and pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. But at some point, we have got to stop spending money on waiting for people do that for themselves. Even if you aren't bothered by the human rights issues of leaving people on the street, there's a hard dollar cost of keeping these people in crisis. And it's a cost we, as a society and as taxpayers, can ill afford.