Each night in the U.S., more than a half million people are homeless.

Aside from putting a dollar in a cup, or ladling out food at local shelters, what are we doing as a society to help homeless people get back on their feet?

Many communities choose punishment. San Francisco has dozens of laws that target homeless people, including bans on begging, sleeping in parks or cars, and sitting on sidewalks. Offenders are ordered to pay fines that average $150 each, which, of course, homeless people can’t pay.

But police officers still hand them out. From 2011 to 2013, fines for sitting, sleeping, and begging nearly tripled. Officers would rather address serious crime, but have no choice because of local residents, who often use the 911 reporting system.

This all costs a lot of money on top of what’s already spent on housing and other homeless services. To be fair, San Francisco is not alone in issuing measures that punish and further dehumanize the homeless.

What if the answer to ending homelessness is to simply give everyone a home?

Some subscribe to a progressive philosophy called Housing First. And it may have started in the fairly conservative state of Utah.

Utah realized in 2005 that the annual cost of homeless people going to jail or the E.R. was nearly $17,000 per person. Compared with the $11,000 cost to give each person an apartment and a social worker, they started to give away apartments under Housing First. Ten years later, they have reduced chronic homelessness by 91%.

Santa Clara, California, focused on housing the homeless, and saved a huge amount of money. Over six years, they went from spending more than $62,000 on homeless people to less than $20,000 a year, thanks to lower E.R. visits, criminal justice procedures, and substance abuse program needs.

Around the country and the world, we are finding innovative ways to get people off the streets through housing, landlord incentives, tiny house communities, turning unused buses into shelters, and even by
reducing barriers like allowing people to live with pets, possessions, and family members.

We can reduce homelessness, help people lead decent lives and save money at the same time.