WSAZ Investigates: Taken for a Ride

Published: Nov. 13, 2017 at 9:58 PM EST
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The increasing homeless population in cities across the region has been a hot button issue for months.

Whether or not you realize it, the homeless population carries with it a financial burden for you and the city where you live. Life on the streets can be difficult, and taxpayers often foot the bill.

In a WSAZ investigation, we uncover how homeless individuals are taxing the system, and in some cases in Charleston, downright abusing it.

To better understand the problem, WSAZ rode along with Lt. Paramedic Shaun Dickey. He has been with the Charleston Fire Department for 12 years.

‘’You're coming out of a seizure?’’ Dickey asks a homeless man after responding to a medical call near CAMC General.

‘’Yeah, I think I might be,’’ the man responds. ‘’I think I got asthma,’’ he replies a few minutes later.

The man wants help and eventually tells Dickey he wants to go to the hospital nearby. He does not necessarily need medical attention, and Dickey says he sees that often with homeless individuals.

Dickey asks the patient if he has been drinking, and he answers that he has. It is about 10 a.m.

‘’This may have been a way to get warm and get something to eat,’’ Dickey says. ‘’We see these all the time, and it's fairly routine, so I hope that he gets the help he needs. I hope it doesn't cost somebody else that needs the help to not be able to receive it for taxing the system.’’

The response for this call -- a police officer, paramedic and an ambulance with two medics. All of those resources are tied up on a call that may not be a true emergency.

‘’It's a true emergency until proven otherwise,’’ Dickey says. ‘’We can't rule out and say that he's not having a medical issue.’’

The scene is indicative of a bigger problem that is costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Homeless individuals are overusing and abusing emergency resources and even calling 911 just for a free ride.

Our investigation into city records found a glaring example. To protect the man’s identity, we are only calling him ‘’John.’’

John racked up more than 300 ambulance rides in an eight-year period, according to Charleston Fire Department records.

He called 911 like a taxi service, often riding to the emergency room on Charleston’s east end from the west side, only to get closer to a nearby shelter for free lunch or dinner.

John’s trips alone cost the city of Charleston more than $73,000. That does not include the corresponding emergency room bills for each trip.

John also cost taxpayers more than $35,000 for more than 50 stints he did in the regional jails, during the same eight year period.

In August, John took advantage of the city’s new Family Reunification program. The city paid for a one-way bus ticket. John moved back to Baltimore, Maryland, to be with family, so he no longer lives in Charleston.

At its peak this summer, Charleston Police told WSAZ there are as many as 1,000 homeless people living in the city and depending on city resources.

True emergency or not, the cost for urgent care add up quickly.

Nationally, government data shows taxpayers spend an average $40,000 a year on one homeless person. Keep in mind, the median household income in Charleston is only $48,000.

The costs come from medical bills, ambulance rides and emergency room visits but also things like jail bills and court costs if the homeless person finds one's self in the criminal justice system.

From January through the end of October, CFD tells WSAZ they have answered 626 person down calls. They say the majority are homeless people.

The patient we met during our ride along ended up taking a ride to the emergency room around the corner.

‘’He said he was from Kentucky, and he said he's been here for a couple months now, and he has nowhere to live,’’ Dickey says.

Some of the ambulance rides and medical treatment the homeless people use are for legitimate emergencies, first responders say. Many times, they are not. Either way, the city and taxpayers are paying the cost.

Service providers tell WSAZ housing is not only a safer option for homeless individuals. It saves cities money in the long run, as well.

Through our investigation, we learned low-income housing in Charleston can cost taxpayers as little as $400 a month. Those are federal dollars. Service providers say it is proven that people who have a home are healthier, safer and make more cost-effective choices, as well.

‘’Flirt with disaster and hope for the best,’’ Dickey said.