Rural homelessness study garners national media attention

June 11, 2009

A study of rural homelessness in Maine conducted by a team of researchers that included two University of New England social work faculty members has garnered attention from more than 50 media outlets, including the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times

The study, commissioned by the Maine State Housing Authority, is believed to be the first study in the nation to provide a look at the costs of rural homelessness in a state.

It concludes that providing "permanent supportive housing" - subsidized housing in combination with mental health, employment and other support services - for homeless people is less costly than serving them while they're without a home.

Thomas Chalmers McLaughlin, Ph.D., associate professor, and Nancy Shore, Ph.D., assistant professor, both of UNE's School of Social Work, were part of a team that included Melany Mondello of Shalom House, Portland, and Jon Bradley of Preble Street, Portland.

In the study, researchers looked at 163 people in all parts of Maine except Portland, the state's largest city, who were homeless and now live in permanent supportive housing. The study examined the costs of mental health care, physical health care, shelters, hospitals, jails and ambulance services while they were homeless and compared them to those same costs after they had housing.

Cost Offsets

The study found that the additional cost of the housing was more than offset by lower costs for the other services.

For instance, people with the housing saw a 99 percent reduction in shelter costs, a 57 percent reduction in mental health care costs, a 32 percent reduction in ambulance service costs and a 95 percent reduction in jail costs. Physical health care costs rose by 9 percent, perhaps because people had easier access to doctors when they had housing.

Without housing, the average six-month cost to support the homeless was $18,629, according to the study; with the housing, the cost was $17,281, for an average savings of $1,348 per person.

Permanent supportive housing, the researchers found, allows people with disabilities significantly more efficient and appropriate housing and service delivery with tangible cost savings.  Not surprisingly, permanent supportive housing also improves quality of life for all involved.

Professor McLaughlin explains that "from a social science perspective our research question is 'does providing people with housing reduce overall costs to social service continuum of care?'  From a less researchy perspective the question is roughly translated to  'Is it cheaper to provide housing for homeless people, then it is to "deal" with them on the street?'" 

Collecting and Analyzing Data

The data the researchers compiled came from detailed billing records for all types services:  a night in the emergency shelter, an ambulance call, an emergency room visit, dental appointment, etc.  The dataset has date of service and cost of the service.  The researchers also knew the date that people were housed so they could run pre-  and post-  costs based on services accessed and then compare both sides of the data. 

Professor Shore worked on the analysis of the qualitative responses to these quality of life questions, and Professor McLaughlin analyzed the data within the different cut points, categories, family structures, service providers, etc.

"There are two really cool things about this research." Professor McLaughlin noted. The research they have been conducting is the first that has actually looked at the real costs associated with providing these services.  "Other studies have estimated the costs but because we have detailed billing record data, we can actually precisely show results of, say health care costs to the penny.  Secondly, the Maine study of rural homeless is the first to be conducted in the United States."

At a recent conference in India, McLaughlin said, "other researchers from around the world were impressed with the results but even more impressed that we were able to collect this data AND that it was available in format that we could use."

Assciated Press Story

The innovative study made its way around national media outlets as the result of a feature story by Clarke Canfield of the Associated Press, who reported on the study and interviewed some of the formerly rural homeless people who cooperated with the researchers on the study.