Homelessness and addiction

John David Sutter, Staff Writer Modified: February 17, 2009 at 11:35 am •  Published: July 27, 2008

Drug and alcohol abuse causes people to fall into homelessness; and the struggle to stay alive on the street drives homeless people to drugs and liquor.

“It’s a chicken and egg. What happens first?” said Greg Shinn, associate director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa.

The links between substance abuse and homelessness are clear, Shinn said.

In the eyes of Shinn and other advocates, so are the solutions.

They argue that it is actually cost-effective for cities and states to treat both issues with one antidote: permanent, supported housing.

Never heard of it? The term refers to housing programs that also offer residents social services — like access to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, case workers and medical care.

Residents pay a percentage of their income. If they don’t make anything, they don’t pay at all.

That may sound expensive, but economic studies in Oklahoma City and Tulsa indicate such programs cost half as much — or less — than letting people live on the street, especially if they face addiction issues.

According to a 2007 report conducted by Shinn’s nonprofit group, it costs the government a total of $29,000 a year to keep someone in Tulsa on the streets, he said. That money is spent in the court system, on police force and jail stays, and on hospital visits.

The cost of putting that person in supported housing is nearly $20,000 less per person per year — or $7,900, Shinn said.

In Oklahoma City, a year of street living for one addict costs the government a whopping $40,000, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City. Supported housing would cost half that per year, he said. Straughan said Oklahoma City’s cost is higher than Tulsa’s because Oklahoma City doesn’t have as many services available for the homeless, including shelters that allow some levels of alcohol or substance use.

Couple that with the fact that homeless people are also three times less likely than others to successfully kick an alcohol or drug addiction while living on the streets, and solutions seem simple, the advocates say.

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By the numbers:

39: percentage of homeless people in Oklahoma City who say they have substance abuse problems.

22: percentage of homeless people in Tulsa who say they have substance abuse problems.

Both numbers are thought to be low, because the conditions are self-reported.

Sources: Homeless Alliance of Oklahoma City, Mental Health Association of Tulsa.

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