How often do people use homeless shelters? The answer to this simple question provides helpful insights into the nature of homelessness, its causes and its solutions.

The number of beds made available by emergency shelters changes over time, but only slowly. In Calgary, for example, the shelter system provides approximately 1,800 beds per night. That number has not changed much over the past 10 years.

If people tended to stay in shelters for long periods of time, these beds would be filled by the same people each night and we would conclude that homelessness is something experienced by relatively few people.

However, if a typical stay in a shelter lasts for only a short time, the relatively low number of shelter beds used each night might remain stable but the overall number of people using those beds over time would be larger, with new people continuously cycling into shelters replacing those who move on.

The appropriate public policy designed to address homelessness depends on which of these descriptions best reflects the reality on the ground. Were it the case that the same people use shelters day in and day out, solutions would focus on issues like mental health and substance abuse.

If instead, new people are constantly cycling in and out of shelters, it makes more sense to promote policy responses that address poverty and other issues.

Homelessness comes in many forms

So, which is it? In a recently published paper, Ali Jadidzadeh and I answered the critical question: how frequently do people use homeless shelters?

Our research used administrative data describing the daily use of emergency shelters by uniquely identified individuals. The data covers six years from January 2011 to December 2016 in Calgary and in Toronto.

Three meaningful patterns emerged:

– How frequently people used shelters.

– How long they stayed.

– Duration of stays for two age groups (18 to 24, and over 24).

Overall, over 80 per cent of people used an emergency shelter only rarely and for only short periods. In Calgary, people who used shelters in this way stayed an average of 1.5 times, with each stay lasting about 17 days. In Toronto, users stayed an average of 1.5 times, but each stay was longer, lasting approximately 45 days.

In both cities some people did stay in shelters for longer, uninterrupted periods – so-called chronic users of shelters. However, it is important to note chronic users made up only about four per cent of shelter users in Calgary and about nine per cent in Toronto.

These results suggest that there is significant and continuous turnover in homeless shelters. Other research we conducted demonstrates that in Calgary an average of 350 people enter that city’s shelter system for the first time every month. This means about 10 per cent of shelter users at any given time are new to the system, replacing about the same number of people who leave either for housing or to sleep rough.

Many people live on the brink

This high turnover rate suggests there is a large population that is currently housed but remains at high risk of experiencing homelessness. In a recently published paper, Margarita Wilkins and I estimated that in Calgary in 2016, there were approximately 115,000 people living in about 40,000 households who were at very high risk of losing their housing.

Our estimate assumes individuals and families at risk of losing housing do all they can to hold onto it. We assume they minimize expenses by relying on food banks and charities, and by renting the least expensive apartments available, often in crowded conditions.

People living in these circumstances are especially vulnerable to changes in rent, food prices, and income supports.

Encouragingly, we also show that even modest policy interventions can make a significant difference. By providing more generous income supports and increased rent subsidies, large numbers of people can be drawn away from the brink of homelessness, lowering the risk that they will ever experience homelessness.

The focus of many public policy interventions is to re-house people who have been homeless for a long time. Our research suggests it would be beneficial to direct more resources toward assisting the 80 per cent of people whose experience with homelessness tends to be short and infrequent.

Breaking the cycle

It sounds almost too obvious: the most cost-effective long-term approach to addressing homelessness is to minimize the number of people who ever experience homelessness in the first place.

This can be achieved by introducing relatively modest policy interventions. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Shelters are often derided because they appear to be costly ways of dealing with homelessness. At an average of roughly $100 per stay per night, it costs $36,500 per year to provide a shelter bed.

Critics point to that price tag and say there must be more effective ways to spend that much money than to pay for one bed in one homeless shelter.

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Our research demonstrates the contrary: most people who end up using a shelter bed do so infrequently and for a short period. That means a single shelter bed is assisting many people, most of whom require only a temporary respite while they re-establish their housing situation.

Put another way, asking what it costs to maintain a bed in a homeless shelter may be the wrong question. Instead, our research supports re-framing the question to ask what it costs to assist someone trying to navigate a return to housing. The answer is, very little.

In concrete terms, assisting a youth in Calgary trying to transition toward permanent housing by providing space in an emergency shelter cost only $800 in 2016, spread over six years. For an adult, we estimated the cost to have been $1,700, again spread over six years.

The bottom line is that these costs are modest when you consider their ultimate impact during short periods of housing dislocation. Most importantly, investing in shelters mitigates the much higher human toll borne by being forced to survive on the street with nowhere to turn.

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Ron Kneebone is a professor of economics and is director of social policy research for the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. X: @RonKneebone

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