It may sound perverse – but we need to get a better handle on how much homelessness is costing us as a society. In mid 2014 I spoke at the “Homelessness: We can’t afford to ignore it” conference, put on by CHCWA . I enjoyed the debate and conversation and was inspired, as I had hoped to be, by the humble Dr Jim O’Connell. He spoke of his work in Boston and of the importance of personal relationships, but also of the way that the health system can provide a better outcome for homeless people without necessarily more investments of money.

Many people spoke of the need to invest in more prevention and support services, none more forcefully that the WA Chief Justice, Wayne Martin (link to paper). I am inspired by his courage when he said that:

Money spent on programs aimed at reducing homelessness and the problems often associated with homelessness, like mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence, is much more likely to reduce crime and make our community safer than the vast amounts of money we are spending on police, courts and prisons.

As part of the debate in the afternoon I also heard a senior Police Officer talk of the work that he has authorised with a family that was consuming vast amounts of Police and Justice resources. The Police have in effect been doing social support work and the outcome has been a massive reduction in offence reporting, kids in school, and the overall cost has been a fraction of what it had been in the past.

Professor Paul Flatau also spoke of the research that he and colleagues have been doing into Housing First programs in Sydney. They are starting to gather the data that shows that in Australia we too can save money in the medium to long term if we allocate housing to people who are homeless and provide appropriate support services to them.

The common theme that went through all of these discussions is that we need to follow the evidence, collaborate more, understand what each individual needs, and provide them with the right supports. We aren’t likely to be getting more money, but there may be ways of getting better outcomes for the money that we have currently got.

This a great video created by CHCWA that shows the state of homelessness in Western Australia at present and also some of the economic costs.