Correction: This story has been updated to include corrected point-in-time counts and corrected Emergency Room Costs.
Millions Spent on a No-Solutions System
Like many other municipalities, Corvallis is struggling under the financial strain of the costs associated with homelessness. The pressure continues to squeeze the already tight budgets of hospitals, mental health centers, Police, Parks and Recreation, and Transportation departments (among others) — with little hope of recuperation.
The City’s Tab
With no place to shelter, humans have no choice but to improvise. Encampments along the Willamette River, in public parks, open lots, and along roadsides spring up and accumulate belongings. These belongings are not well hidden, because there is nowhere to properly store them. The trash accumulates because there is no garbage service. And when those individuals are asked to leave, the City spends a lot of money cleaning it all up.
Patrick Rollens, Public Information Officer for the City of Corvallis, described the financial strain these efforts place on the City. “This work stretches the already tight budgets of the Public Works, Police, Fire, and Parks and Recreation departments.”
Rollens continued, “We don’t have a firm number on total costs to the City for camp cleanup. I would say it is definitely at least $150,000 annually.”
The Oregon Department of Transportation had areas to clean up every month except December and January over the past year, according to Public Information Officer Angela Beers Seydel. This is because January is reserved for the statewide homeless population census, during which campers are undisturbed.
Seydel explained, “A maintenance supervisor spends 4 to 8 hours a month assessing the city for new and known camps, and about 4 hours a month posting notifications with CPD.
“Cleaning up an area takes 1 to 3 days, depending on the amount of garbage and personal property needing to be removed. An inmate crew under contract does the physical cleanup, while ODOT employees operate a loader and 10 yard dump trucks.”
Seydel said that ODOT spent $50,000 on these clean ups in Corvallis from January through October of 2018. “Those are funds that aren’t going to fixing potholes, picking up litter, cutting back brush, and other road maintenance everyone expects [to get done].”
Business as Usual
I asked Shawn Collins, former Housing Opportunities Action Council Project Manager for United Way, what the cost of Corvallis’ current approach to assisting the unhoused is.
“If you look at jail time,” said Collins, “which is often not usually a solution for folks in our community because we have such limited jail space, you’re looking at about $150 a day … and you’re looking at $1,500 a day to $2,000 a day if you’re in the hospital.”
Collins delved into environmental costs too. “The toilet needs of these individuals are definitely not being met, and, as humans will do, they improvise. That is not always to the benefit of everybody else around. And if you’re living in a tent without trash service, it’s going to be hard for you to keep a clean camp, and as tends to happen, you get asked to move, you may or may not clean all that up on your way out, so the Parks department pays a pretty substantial bill every year to clean up camps. $85,000 was quoted to me for park clean up.”
Collins further commented that the police “spend a significant amount of time going out to camps talking to people about their needs, trying to help them, encouraging them to keep a clean camp, giving them time to move. That’s all time that gets buried in the police budget.”
Community Livability Unit supervisor Sargent Goodwin, tasked by the CPD with supervising camp cleanups, stated that his unit spends about half of their time working on illegal camping, or about 20 hours a week. The average officer in Corvallis makes $53,800 a year, according to Salary.com. We can estimate then that half of that, or $26,900 per officer, is spent on illegal camp cleanup per year. There are currently 6 officers on this team, so that works out to be approximately $161,400 annually.
Jan Napack, Ward 1 City Councilor, informed me that the “levy that just passed includes $360,000 earmarked for social services. City Council budget adds $30,000 to $35,000 to that depending on resources and recommendations compiled by United Way and council policy priorities.” In addition to that funding “are the HUD grants for housing related programs. Amounts vary, but are in the tens of thousands,” she said.
“So basically, you’ve got a series of folks who are paying into this system to arrive at a completely non-functional solution,” said Collins, further acknowledging that communities that are able to get people into housing and provide wraparound services so they can stay housed tend to see lower costs.
Emergency Room Costs
“One area where we see significant buried costs is in the medical field,” Collins continued. “Folks that are camping often do not have a primary care physician, so their healthcare needs can be pretty dramatic and are often fulfilled by the emergency department. That’s a cost that often is absorbed by the hospital system.”
According to a National League of Cities report, “The long-term homeless account for 20% of the homeless population, but they use 70% of emergency services by cycling in and out of emergency rooms, shelters, and the criminal justice system.”
I spent over three months reaching out to representatives at Samaritan Health Services to find out if there is a per patient, per day cost associated with homelessness. Ian Rollins, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, finally informed me that Samaritan “won’t be able to supply the cost of homeless care in the Emergency Department… due to the complexity of health care finances.”
In her article Hospitals Tackling Homelessness to Bring Down Costs, Meg Bryant states that the chronically homeless are “five times more likely than non-homeless folks to be admitted to a hospital inpatient unit and stay on average four days longer, at a cost of $2,000 to $4,000 per day.”
In order to nail down a rough figure, I looked at the Point In Time count for total people experiencing homelessness in 2018 in Benton County. In Benton County, there are 247 individuals experiencing homelessness according to the 2018 point in time (PIT) count from Oregon Housing and Community Services. According to a 2017 white paper from the Corvallis League of Women Voters (LWV), “Homelessness in Corvallis“, homeless individuals in the Benton County area could be closer to 855- 1257.
If the 247 people experiencing homelessness according to the PIT count used hospital inpatient services just one time at Bryant’s reported $2,000 to $4,000 per day price, it would cost Benton County $494,000 to $988,000 for this year alone. If the up to 1257 people experiencing homelessness according to the LWV numbers used hospital inpatient services with the same conditions, it would cost Benton County $2,514,000 to $5,028,000 for this year alone.
The Final Score
I added up all the costs for the agencies and departments who gave me solid numbers. ODOT, Parks and Rec, CPD, and the City Corvallis spent $446,400 last year on all issues related to illegal camping. The recent levy and funds set into action by City Council adds up to $405,000. Adding these two sums together, we arrive at $851,400 for one year. This number does not include any of the costs associated with incarceration for the Benton County Jail, or the costs to the Corvallis School District. If we use Bryant’s per day emergency room expenditures, total costs can easily reach millions of dollars annually.
All of this money is not actually solving the problem of getting the chronically homeless into permanent unconditional housing. At the end of the day, after all of these services are provided and paid for, the unhoused remain unhoused.
If we were to use the $4 million figure for emergency room costs to individuals experiencing homelessness, and add that to City, ODOT, Parks and Rec, and City Council expenditures totaling $851,400, we would arrive at over $5 million. OPB reports that the cost of building affordable housing in Oregon is between $121,520 and $387,468 per unit. Think of how much permanent housing we could build with these funds, or how many already existing apartment buildings could be purchased.
By Blair Girard