Homeless office a sound investment; it could save lives, city funds

In tough times it's hard to try anything new, especially if it means spending money.

So, it's likely that some citizens and members of the Urban County Council might look closely at Mayor Jim Gray's budget proposal to include $120,000 for an office on homelessness.

That's fine, it's the right thing to examine any spending involving public dollars. But we'd recommend some additional reading to go along with the budget figures.

The Courier-Journal of Louisville Sunday described a program at University Hospital there to identify the most frequent users of emergency rooms and intervene to help them get more effective, and less expensive, health care.

A man featured in the story had visited the ER 337 times in less than two years, racking up a $626,143 bill he couldn't pay.

The man has a seizure disorder and high blood pressure, abused alcohol, and was homeless. With no regular doctor, he was in an endless loop in and out of the ER.

University Hospital's program found him a medical home for non-emergency care to control his conditions, a substance abuse program to help him dry out, and a free apartment.

Since joining the program eight months ago he's been to the ER three times, giving the hospital, and taxpayers, an enormous return on the $6,000 spent to improve his health and lifestlye.

So, what does all this have to do with the proposed homelessness office in Lexington?

This individual's life is better, which is great, but life is also better for the rest of the community.

The ER costs borne by either taxpayers or paying patients and their insurers are drastically lower. So are the number of times police and ambulance time were diverted from other duties to tend to him.

The recommendations of the task force Gray appointed to study homelessness and affordable housing in Lexington take into account the wide range of assistance — what are called wrap-around services — required to seriously reduce homelessness, thereby reducing civic costs and human suffering.

It's important to remember that the man described here is only one face of the homeless. The task force reported that families, most of them headed by a single mother, now make up 38 percent of Lexington's homeless population.

Other groups include people escaping from domestic abuse, children and young adults who have run away or aged out of foster care, the mentally ill and people discharged from hospitals or jails.

While the circumstances aren't the same as those of the man described above, for each group rapid, effective intervention to address the root problems — in addition to housing — would help the individuals and save public resources longer term.

The task force recommended raising the insurance premium fee one percent to pay for the office, services and affordable housing. Gray's recommendation this year is to fund the office only.

That would give a professional a year to build on the task force's work, identify resources and needs, quantify expenses and potential savings and plan for a full-out assault on homelessness in Lexington.

It seems like a smart first step and a good investment.