Statement: The annual cost of chronic homelessness to taxpayers is anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000 per person, Brian Maienschein told me on Friday.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: Maienschein was referring to a much-discussed segment of the homeless population — frequent users of government, emergency and medical services that suck up a disproportionate share of public resources.

Maienschein said the $150,000 to $400,000 range is an estimate for the highest-cost users of emergency services and public resources.

The range estimate is an extrapolation, he said, from a local study. And there are instances, like the one featured in this Malcolm Gladwell piece called Million Dollar Murrary, which pegs the hospital bills of one Nevada homeless man at about $1 million.

The predominant sense in the homeless services community is that a range like this is accurate. But we don’t have current numbers for how much these frequent users cost San Diego taxpayers. That’s the whole point of what Maienschein hopes this new United Way program will do — provide new numbers for what chronic homelessness costs in San Diego.

So analyzing the before-and-after costs is a chicken-and-the-egg scenario.

Even though several supportive housing experts in San Diego deemed Maienschein’s estimate reasonable and similar to what has been found in other cities, Maienschein himself admitted today he doesn’t expect all 25 users to reach that $150,000-to-$400,000 threshold.

He said that range refers to the highest-of-the-high users, and that he expects most of the 25 users placed in the new program to come in closer to between $35,000 and $150,000, a range he cited in a meeting last summer, he said.

The most widely used number for understanding the costs of emergency services super-users in San Diego is from that local study, performed in the late 1990s.

Dr. Jim Dunford, the city of San Diego’s medical director, studied the medical costs incurred by 15 chronic users at two hospitals. That study found that over 18 months, they incurred emergency ambulance and hospital bills of $1.5 million — or $100,000 each, on average.

Dunford said the range Maienschein used is plausible for San Diego.

“Those are the kinds of numbers that you see all the time,” he said. “We’re talking about a certain number of people who have enormous and disproportionate medical costs.”

More than a decade after Dunford’s initial study, the $100,000 is bound to be higher, supporting the bottom edge of Maienschein’s range, he said.

But the program Maienschein’s announcing doesn’t include only hospital and emergency services.

If you add the other costs these super-users incur — like police time, district attorney charges, mental health services — the number grows ever bigger, Dunford said. Potentially, there could be a local super-user whose medical bills and other costs resemble that of million-dollar Murray.

The program Maienschein touted on Friday will take 25 frequent users of government and emergency services and match them with support services and housing.

We’re calling Maienschein’s statement Mostly True because the range he used is an estimate and an extrapolation, even though experts deem it believable. This Fact Check could be bumped up to True, or dropped down to False, once the program gets going and the actual costs of the 25 frequent users are tallied.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Summer Polacek

Summer Polacek was formerly the Development Manager at Voice of San Diego.

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