Homelessness comes with a price

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SARASOTA, Fla. - The social problem that comes with homelessness also has a price tag, and taxpayers are bearing the brunt of that burden.  Attorney Andrea Mogensen says a recent arrest highlights the problem. 

"She was arrested last week for publicly defecating in front of the court house," says Mogensen about 56-year-old mentally ill homeless pearson Laura Mallia.  Mogensen is taking the case on Pro Bono.

"Its pretty clear from the affidavit that the law enforcement officer wrote that is was not an intentional act, she had some type of medical issue and was unable to hold it," added Mogensen.

But because Mallia was unable to make her $120 bail, she ended up spending 8 days in jail.  According to the Sarasota Sheriff's office the cost for an inmate is $70.15 per day, but that number does not include facility costs, which drives up the figure.

"What makes the jail extremely expensive is that when a person is incarcerated, the sheriff is also responsible for that person's full medical care and the cost of security 24 hours a day,  and the technology that attends with that security, drives the cost of that housing way way up," said Mogensen.

All those costs are completely driven by tax dollars, which in Mallia's case came up to $561.20.  According to 2012-2013 crime satistics, the homeless population made up 23% of all the arrests in the city of Sarasota.  Last year there were 1,537 transient arrests and if they all spent one night stay in jail the cost would add up to almost $108,000. But, in Sarasota there are not many other options other than jail.

"Unless there they are a danger to themselves or others, there's no way to hospitalize them," said Leslie Loveless the executive director at Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.  She says its much more costly to jail somebody than give them mental health care and the group hopes to fix the problem.

"The partnership and the county have both identified the need for additional services for the homeless," added Loveless.  

Based on figures from Pinellas County the cost to house the homeless in an transitional facility is $13 a day, much less than the day cost of putting them in jail.

"To lock someone up for these types of minor infractions that are associated with poverty is a very expensive way to handle the poverty that is in our community," added Mogensen.

The Sarasota officials have gone on record saying they are working to come up with a solution for the homeless problem.