In Osceola County, Florida, municipalities have spent more than $5 million during the past decade to repeatedly jail homeless people. Rather than being jailed for major crimes, nearly all of the arrests of homeless people involved violations of local ordinances criminalizing homelessness, such as panhandling and sleeping in public, ThinkProgress reports.
Impact Homelessness, a Florida advocacy group, collected the data for Osceola County. The group notes that homelessness is on the rise in central Florida partly because the community has not created a comprehensive, long-term plan to address homelessness and poverty issues. Their findings show that 37 homeless people in Osceola County were collectively arrested 1,250 times between 2004 and 2013, at a cost of $104 for each booking and an average cost of $80 per day for incarceration.
With a total of 61,896 days of incarceration among them, the county spent $5,081,680 just to repeatedly jail 37 homeless people. Additionally, these costs do not include certain “deep end” services such as emergency room visits, EMT and ambulance fees, hospital admissions, the costs of each arrest by police, and the cost to the court for processing each arrest.
A “chronically homeless” person is defined as “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, OR has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” According to the report by Impact Homelessness:
Osceola County has at least 300 chronically homeless people living on the streets each day.
Most of these chronically homeless people are mentally ill and/or physically disabled; many are veterans.
Permanent supportive housing could provide help for the chronically homeless of Osceola County, but there are currently only 26 permanent supportive housing units in the county – enough to house 11 percent of the chronically homeless. For the 37 individuals who were repeatedly arrested during the past 10 years, the county would have spent substantially less money by providing them with permanent supportive housing rather than putting them in jail.
One unit of permanent supportive housing costs $9,602 each year, including rent and utilities. In order to qualify, individuals must have a disabling condition and must participate in case management.
The trend of criminalizing the homeless is a worrisome one. Last year, the City of Columbia in South Carolina voted to ban homeless residents from its city center. If homeless people refused to be relocated, they faced arrest under a range of public nuisance laws.
In 2009, The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless released a report detailing the worsening housing and homelessness crisis in the United States, particularly as a result of the economic crisis and housing foreclosures. Evictions and the economic recession contributed to a growing homeless population nationwide.
“The answer is housing,” Andrae Bailey, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness told ThinkProgress. “If mayors and county commissioners and community leaders want to solve a problem like Osceola County has, they need to invest in permanent supportive housing.”
The example set by the state of Utah would seem to prove this case. Utah concluded that the annual cost of ER visits and jail stays for homeless individuals cost more money than providing each person with a home and a social worker. Since 2005, the state has reduced its rate of chronic homelessness by 74 percent, putting the state on track to eliminate homelessness by 2015, NationSwell reports.
Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.