"First in a series" can be the scariest words in the English language, as a seasoned (and embittered) journalist once told me. And he was right. Especially when the email address that corresponds with the series is "shameofthecity@sfchronicle.com."

But lo and behold, the San Francisco Chronicle's three-part series on homelessness is actually quite informative and balanced. And it raises an interesting question for libertarians: When legit use of existing government programs makes homelessness a hugely expensive problem for local goverments, is an aggressive campaign to get them onto various welfare rolls and into low cost, subsidized housing a good idea if it's cheaper overall? And what if the homeless people costing the state tons of money say they don't want help? How hard should the government try to convince them that they do, especially if sucessfully doing so will reduce the overall financial burden on taxpayers?

The first story asks the utterly fair question: How much does homelessness cost? It tells the story--and does the accounting--on the "redemption" of one tough case, Georgia Mitchell:

It is expensive redemption -- Mitchell's home and medical care cost taxpayers about $21,000 a year. But her case shows how that can be far cheaper than allowing homeless people to deteriorate on the street, becoming public nuisances and financial burdens.

In her last two years on the street, the public spent nearly $100,000 annually on Georgia Mitchell's emergency care and support.

The article also deals with the question of what to do with people who just don't want help:

The rejection of help is a key reason there are so many homeless people on the nation's streets. But state and federal laws allow addicted or mentally ill homeless people to refuse the very services that could assist them. Ever since the 1960s patients' rights movement, they have had the same prerogative as housed citizens to refuse any service unless they pose a danger to themselves or others -- which is hard to prove.

The only way [Officer] Peachy could force Mitchell into drug rehabilitation was to arrest her and hope she was sentenced to rehab -- which courts usually do. But she could leave rehab any time after starting it.

The mayor's program is tough, and interesting:

Newsom has expanded the leasing of residential hotel rooms in large part with $14 million a year in savings from his controversial Care Not Cash program. Begun in May 2004, Care Not Cash slashed welfare checks to the homeless to $59 a month, from $410 a month....

Another administration initiative has been Homeward Bound, which since February 2005 has sent 1,445 people back to where they came from at a cost of $204,889 in bus tickets and money for food. In a speech on Thursday, Newsom said the number of those who climbed aboard the buses had grown to 1,656.

The third story concedes that, while there's some antecdotal evidence that things are looking up, the city really has no idea where the $108 million spent on homeless projects is going because there is little accountability or central data gathering. 

Basically, you've got the highlights now--consider this a sort of "we read Pulitzer candidates so you don't have to" service. But if you insist on reading for yourself, the three parts are here, here, and here.