“London’s Underground – Part 3 – The Size, The Cost”

During the course of my walking tour three weeks ago, I asked my now retired police friend and tour guide if he had any sense as to the number of people that would comprise the core of London’s Underground.  While he could not provide me with an exact count, he estimated the number of ‘regulars’ to be between 300-500 members, with approximately 150 members qualifying as ‘frequent consumers’.

At first glance, I didn’t think that number to be too bad, until I began to calculate the cost associated with servicing our members.

Before continuing, it is important to comment that the measurement, data collection and reporting associated with poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health is appalling.  In preparation of this series of posts on London’s Underground, it took me several to retrieve, review and quantify this critical segment of our society.  In the course of my analysis, I reviewed a number of city reports that failed to include much, if any, relevant information on the financial magnitude of the problem.  I have also yet to find a city report that clearly itemizes the taxpayer’s contribution to each of the numerous organizations and agencies that are providing services to our most vulnerable.  A number of the organizations do provide some level of reporting on sources and uses of funds; however, it is difficult to distinguish one agency’s service from another, and very few track how the investment is actually contributing to quantifiable outcomes.

To the City’s credit, they recently attempted to identify and quantify our vulnerable citizens through an enumeration process.  However, this process is made much more difficult given the transient nature of most Underground members.   Still, there really is no specific measurement apparatus in place to know who we are helping, how much we are spending, what are the results, and is any of this effort making a damn bit of difference.

So, in an effort to quantify the cost of the market, I spent a fair of time pouring over city reports, 25-plus organization/agency websites and annual reports (where available), hospital reports, police reports, the London Health Integration Network performance metrics and anything else I could find to determine the size our Underground.

The results are astonishing.

Based on the data assessed, it is my contention that London’s Underground is comprised of between 300 and 500 of our most troubled and hurting citizens, a relatively small portion of London’s population that conservatively cost our community a whopping $11-15 million each year.

The approximate breakdown is as follows:

  • Police                                   $1.5-2.0 million
  • Hospital Services             2.0-3.0 million
  • Shelters                                5.0-7.0 million
  • Support Services             2.5-3.0 million
  • Total                                 $11.0-15.0 million

To be honest, at first I had hard time accepting this total, an annual amount nearly equivalent to City’s entire budget for the Dundas Flex Street.  Fortunately, I came across an academic study led by Professor Eric Latimer, a researcher at McGill University that was featured in a July 31st news report on CBC Montreal.  The McGill study undertook a detailed analysis of five cities across Canada (Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Moncton) in an attempt to derive the cost to provide services to homeless people with mental illness in each of the cities.  The findings suggest that cities are spending over $50,000 per year on each individual experiencing homelessness and mental health in their community.  If one were to extrapolate this annual cost per person across the 300-500 estimated members of London’s Underground, our city’s investment would be approximately $15-25 million annually.  Moreover, this tally ignores the financial and volunteer investments made by our Food Banks, Drop-In Centres, Housing Corporation, and an array of Counselling Services.  It also ignores the social costs associated with petty crime, incarceration, sanitation, lost business, and reduced tourism.

Needless to say, the thought of spending roughly $11-15 million each and every year on 300 of our most vulnerable citizens makes little sense to me, when one considers the marginal prospects that the lives of these members are improving under the current system.  And when one adds in the social and economic consequences to our residents, our merchants, our patrons, our tourists and our taxpayers, it is a problem that needs immediate civic engagement.

In the coming weeks, I plan to post a series of recommendations that I believe will make a difference in our efforts to heal the Underground.  However, two key strategic measures immediately come to mind.

First, the City needs to deploy a system to identify and track all of our most vulnerable members.  It is worth noting that the police, shelter providers and health care system all know who the members are given that they are in contact with them as often as 3 times a day.  To the credit of the police and civic administration, they have identified the development of such a system as a priority.  After all, we cannot fix what we cannot track.

Second, I am concerned that a number of our civic initiatives are designed and deployed in silos.  For example, currently the City has plans for; a poverty strategy, a homeless prevention strategy, a mental health and addiction strategy and a strategy to assist high-risk youth.  It is also deliberating on; supervised injection sites, an opioid crisis, a street level women at risk program, and programs to aid our indigenous communities.

All of the above initiatives are noteworthy and necessary, and the people driving them are well-meaning and well-intended.  Still, I am increasingly of the view that what is needed in not another initiative, committee or strategy session.

What is needed on this problem is leadership.

Next week – our current system, our current response.