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Many studies around the country have demonstrated significant savings on incarceration, adjudication, and medical costs when funds are directed toward the creation of affordable housing. However, with the increasing prevalence of criminalization ordinances — ordinances that disparately impact the homeless — funds that could be used for affordable housing are being diverted toward their enforcement. Although existing studies address general costs and savings associated with housing homeless people, they do not address the costs directly attributable to criminalization ordinances. In an effort to shed light on these direct costs, the Seattle University Homeless Rights Advocacy Project has traced the following total costs directly to the enforcement of less than half of the identified criminalization ordinances in Seattle and Spokane:

Seattle: An estimated 5-year minimum of $2,300,000 is directly attributed to enforcing just 16% of the city’s criminalization ordinances.

Spokane: An estimated 5-year minimum of $1,300,000 is directly attributed to enforcing 75% of the city’s criminalization ordinances.

Affordable Housing Alternatives: Investing the $3.7 million spent in criminalization ordinances over the five years covered in this study in housing the homeless could save taxpayers over $2 million annually and over $11 million total over the five years.

Although these figures are substantial, they still underestimate the total overall costs that these two cities spend on criminalizing homelessness. For example, the vast majority of available data exists only for criminal violations, not civil infractions, which may constitute the largest percentage of enforcement costs in any given city. Finally, due to limitations in data, this report focuses only on two cities as Washington case studies. Although these estimates are necessarily a mere fraction of the total costs of criminalizing homelessness in Washington state, at least two things are clear: (1) these ordinances are costly and do not address the underlying problems of homelessness; and (2) the redirection of funds currently being used to criminalize homelessness to support affordable housing would result in substantial cost savings.

Keywords: public space, homelessness, race, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, LGBTQ, homeless, poverty, constitutional rights, civil rights, human rights, criminalization, neoliberal