How to Help the Homeless, Cut Incarceration and Save Taxpayer Money

Kudos to Boulder’s City Council. It voted 8 to 1 to back Lee Hill, a new housing project that can keep chronically homeless people off Boulder’s streets and save taxpayer money.


Called Housing First, such projects put people who are homeless into apartments with support services, including street people in fairly bad shape. And it works.

Studies of Housing First, such as one done in Denver in 2007, show lives changed for the better. Use of public services goes down – sometimes dramatically.

But there’s one benefit you don’t hear about much: Housing First can keep homeless humans treated like trash out of our courts and out of our jails.

Typically collared for crimes such as drinking from open containers, they cycle in and out of jails over and over again.

One “most booked” woman in Boulder, Madonna Mooney, homeless and alcoholic, has been arrested 31 times since 2010, said a striking story on indigent offenders published in Boulder’s Daily Camera April 14th. (By Pierrette J. Shields at

“The last time I had a home was in 2003,” Mooney told Shields in an interview conducted inside the Boulder County Jail. Taxpayers “have spent a fortune on me,” Mooney said.

In fact, taxpayers have spent at least $59,000 on her in the last two years alone, Shields found. That only covers her arrest, jail, and court costs.

Lester Dostin, another homeless “frequent flier,” has mental health issues. He’s spent 3,431 days in the Boulder County Jail since 1995, Shields wrote. At current rates, a day behind bars for someone like Dostin costs the county $90.58.

You do the math.

Lee Hill, a Boulder Housing Partners project, uses a more advanced calculus.

It will put sophisticated support services and 31 apartments for people like Madonna Mooney next to the current shelter in North Boulder.

Lee Hill is an extensively vetted plan, but even after its April 17th City Council approval, some North Boulder groups still oppose it.

Fear of crime looms large in community concerns. Maybe they don’t know Housing First can reduce crime as well as costs.

That’s what happened in Denver. A 2007 study detailed per-person public services costs before and after chronically homeless people got into Housing First apartments.
Incarceration costs dropped 76 percent – from $899 a year to $214. (Overall savings? $4,745 per person.)

P.J. Shields’ story showed how it worked for David, one of the Boulder jail’s frequent fliers. He struggles with mental illness, spent years on the streets, and now lives in a small Housing First apartment in Longmont.

Shields talked to the caseworker who visits David once a week and even helps with his chores. David’s “constant trips to the jail have been derailed,” Shields found.
She also talked to Boulder County Jail’s Commander Bruce Haas. Homeless alcoholics and the mentally ill “seem to have defaulted to incarceration for help,” he said – too few Colorado beds and programs for them elsewhere.

It’s not just a Colorado problem. A half dozen years ago, in Washington, DC, Lou Schwartz, a volunteer minister at the DC jail, told me he often sees homeless people with mental illness behind bars.

“There is no mercy in the system,” Schwartz said. “They come out of jail. They’re in the shelters. They’re on the street. They die or they come back into jail. They don’t get the help they need on the outside.”

“I have seen it all over the United States,” said E. Fuller Torrey, MD. Torrey is a nationally known advocate for the mentally ill homeless and president of The Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia.

Clearly and fortunately a nationally recognized solution has taken root right here in Colorado, and Housing First is now in Colorado Springs, Denver and Boulder.

But in some quarters it’s not a particularly popular plant. Here are 50 ways to keep it growing and help it flourish.


* Promote housing, not handcuffs. Six options for Denver-area advocates.

* Lee Hill: Say yes from your desk.

* Volunteer with the Colorado Coalition. Thirty-two choices.

* At Boulder Housing Partners teach yoga or cooking. Computer tutor.

* Volunteer with Harbor House in Colorado Springs.

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