The $60,000 Question: Why Do We Pay So Much to Incarcerate or “Shelter” People While Others Starve?

Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez has written hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles about homeless people. This past weekend, he featured Edythe Russell, a 79 year-old woman living with her dogs in her car in the parking lot of the Carlsbad Senior Center. Carlsbad is a wealthy beach resort community in North San Diego County.

Edythe Russell in the back of her car (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times 2017 — go to their site and pay the .99 “intro subscription” fee … lol)

So, here’s the situation. Lopez is a Pulitzer finalist and winner of other prestigious literary awards who retained his full-time position and benefits with the Times after hundreds of others have been laid off over the years and the paper continues to financially struggle. His articles never change. They always highlight the “human condition” of the myriad homeless people whose numbers simply increase with every passing day.

Bear with me, please …

I meant to write this article about how there seems to be a $60,000 per-person “allotment” the U.S. government is willing to expend in aggregate to

INCARCERATE or “SHELTER” individuals

as part of privately-funded prison or “non-profit” shelter enterprises. Our government and by extension, society, is unwilling to give that kind of cash to individuals to spend at their own discretion. It won’t even pay out adequate Social Security to 78 year old women who’ve worked a lifetime, so they don’t have to live with their dogs in the back of their PT Cruisers.

But wait … I’ve been sidetracked by Steve Lopez and his very important and high-quality work. Lopez, a man far too talented, important and highly recognized by society, a real writer for a highly-prestigious publication, is so justifiably way the fuck too busy to ever answer an email or phone call about new, shocking, factual information from a piece of shit the likes of me.

I say this because years ago, I did attempt to inform Lopez, the tireless homeless advocate, of the $60,000 question which is what I’m actually writing about. I had just noticed it after doing an audit of a well-known government-funded two year transitional housing program that other people a) took credit for; and b) received payment for. [*author’s note — I see the program is now one year, not two years, it appears to charge rent, and — a different organization is operating it]. I once nearly started a fight at a local government meeting of homeless grandees and executives by saying, “If we’re willing to pay $60,000 a year to keep somebody in a shelter, why the hell don’t we just cut them a check and let them find their own housing?”

This would be known to others as “Universal Basic Income” — but the others don’t know about the $60,000 question. They think small social security payments or Food Stamps or health payments are “burdensome.”

But again, I digress.

Lopez is known to most people as the basis of the reporter character in the famous film “The Soloist,” which fictionalized his discovery of concert violinist Nathaniel Ayers living on Los Angeles’ Skid Row and ongoing “friendship.” Lopez writes movingly that Mr. Ayers calls him “Mr. Lopez.” [Two years ago, there was an update on Mr. Ayers].

I’m writing this now and I suddenly realize why this man has received so many awards and so much recognition …

He regularly makes trips to Skid Row and other shittastic human dumping ground locations. Those who give such prizes likely believe there has to be some form of special recognition for doing shit they’d never even consider doing. I have observed this type of thing makes them feel good to read these stories written in a manner that confirms their worldview. Plus, awards don’t cost much, if anything.

Lopez has been writing the same damn article for at least 25 years and only the person, picture and location changes. Now it has attached videos and the comment section is worse; there wasn’t a comment section, only printed letters to the editor in the huge, 3.5 million circulation massive paper Times when the situation first began.

And I was a young woman who understood none of this.

Edythe is likely too old to make the kind of money depicted in the chart of funds available for selling various body parts.

Cost Per Person Sheltered or Incarcerated: Why Not Just Cut a Check?

It doesn’t matter whether a person is sheltered in a mission, stays in a “Transitional Housing Program” or is imprisoned. The only difference is that some systems do expend less per-person, per-year than others.

The fact I attempted to notify Lopez about way back in 2005 [over a decade ago] was …

Government-funded “Transitional Housing Programs” seemed to work out at about $60,000 spent per person “housed” per 12 month accounting period. I derived this figure by the advanced mathematical method of dividing the number of residents the program said they housed over the course of a year into the organization’s total annual expenditures for the same year. Unlike every other article you might read on this topic, I’m stating this based on reviewing actual financial reports and program reports submitted for funding reimbursement by operating programs (not just the Mather Community Campus in Sacramento I referenced above). This is the “homeless industry” version of the USAF $800 hammer and $10,000 toilet — and it’s been true for over a decade and everybody involved either knows it, or doesn’t want to know.

In case you’re one of the a**hats who’ll justify this in comments — and you’re not a HUD employee or one of the investors making book off this …

My motive at the time was to assess the cost-effectiveness of the “Housing First” program operated by the organization I worked for (which pioneered the concept). At a cost of between $5,000 and $6,000 per family, it seemed to be much more affordable than paying for an extended “Transitional Housing” stay. I knew that my boss referred to shelter programs as “therapeutic incarceration.” I thought, “Yes, it’s true — sometimes homeless people are incarcerated, then they end up in shelter programs after they are released because they can’t find jobs …”

Talking About Redlands

We were talking about Redlands last night. Of course the cost of our “Home Again” program way back in the day, back in Redlands, was sometimes “free” because of volunteers pitching in, but it averaged about $2,500 per family assisted to move into a home or apartment. Yes, sometimes they really could move into a house with a back yard in an actual neighborhood. That was in the early to mid-90s. Back then, we were all just blown away there was such a thing as homeless families.

I mentioned the Tartan and teared up a little thinking about those old-time days with lunches with Terry Haden, Frances Carter and all the others who were so caring and giving …

We had a town, we had a community, we were able to do the right thing and a lot of people benefited. People could get jobs, they could get by, they could pay bills and they could heal themselves and their lives.

So this article isn’t going where I wanted it to. The “men” share articles about “Universal Basic Income” [UBI] and have charts, etc. On average they have 5x to 10x the followers I do. I paid the monthly fee to be a “member” of Medium though I had little confidence that much good would result.

I wanted to write this because last night, a gentleman commented on social media that private prisons earned, on average, $20,000 profit per-prisoner in the 30 states that have instituted private, for-profit prisons. In the non-profit world, there is no specific “profit” derived from homeless shelters or programs. Instead, there are staffs and salaries and facilities to be maintained, and vendors to be paid and so-on. The only missing ingredient is shareholders.

Chart: courtesy SmartAsset 2015

“Conservatives” will make the argument that private prisons lower the “cost” of incarcerating inmates. It’s certainly possible; yet the majority of inmates should not be incarcerated in the first place. As of 2013, about one in 34 U.S. adults were either currently incarcerated, or on parole or probation.

Source: Wikimedia Commons — 2013 statistics

As all who know me well know: I am an American patriot. The true meaning of this statistic is that more Americans are incarcerated as both a percentage of the population and also in total numbers, than in China, Russia, or Iran. That makes me feel deeply ashamed.

We add the 6.7 million to the total numbers of homeless (578,000 as of the last “official count”) including 78 year-old women like Edythe Russell, and we add to this the relative cost (the chart showing cost per-year per incarcerated inmate is from an article that explains that many states artificially lower the recorded cost of incarceration by spreading out expenses as part of health, education or mental health budgets) of either incarceration or homeless shelters and we come to the inescapable conclusion:

This is Where all the Money Went

It made that long-ago group so angry when they all realized just how much it cost to keep somebody in the most-expensive “transitional” housing programs (and even at that time, all knew that the programs were seldom ‘successful’).

They were angry at me for pointing it out, and especially angry at me when I said “If we’re willing to spend that much per person, why not just cut them a check and let them find their own housing?”

It’s hard to understand why we say this is a “free country,” or that people have economic and social opportunity. We have graduated a whole generation of students not just from the “school to prison pipeline” but also the “school to student loan debt slavery pipeline.” These aren’t Bernie Sanders lies, these are the plain truth. People over age 65 should not be living in the back of their cars with their dogs because landlords are charging exorbitant rents for tiny studio apartments. We did not just fail to prosecute the subprime mortgage miscreants in 2009, they are still buying up distressed properties to rent for the greatest possible percentage of people’s income.

It’s not hard to understand why some people prefer incarceration. It’s not “therapeutic,” it’s a roof, a cot, a blanket, meals and clothing.

Of course not every homeless shelter program is useless, and not every prison system utterly corrupt, rehabilitating no one, just warehousing people as cheaply as possible until their bodies can be officially turned into Soylent Green. But the scales have certainly tipped to the point where it’s unsustainable.

Any institution, public or private, we care to name is just a profit center for the rich and greedy now. The same was true many years ago; they say they fought a war over it. Yes, this is our fault, as a society. And no: it’s not sustainable.