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POINT: Housing alone cannot solve homelessness

Christopher Calton, InsideSources.com on

Published in Op Eds

In March 2021, San Francisco’s Mission Hotel held a joint funeral service for seven residents. The hotel is one of the sites leased by the city to house the unsheltered population, and resident deaths have become so frequent in these facilities that joint memorials have become the norm. Although the causes of the deaths vary, drug overdose has been responsible for 40% of those memorialized at these services.

These former hotel residents had been homeless, and the city helped them by providing them with a permanent shelter. Considering “homelessness” by its strict definition, this would seem to solve the problem. People who previously did not have a home now do.

But for those suffering from trauma, mental illness and substance abuse, homelessness is a symptom of deeper problems. This is especially true in the age of fentanyl. We can warehouse every person living on the streets today and hang “Mission Accomplished” banners above the doors of their new homes. Still, we would eventually discover we had uncorked the champagne prematurely.

Since the 2009 passage of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, the federal government’s approach to solving homelessness has been guided by the “Housing First” philosophy.

Fifteen years later, we should recognize the inadequacy of this approach, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s recent Homeless Assessment Report, released in December, showing a 12% increase nationally in the number of homeless from 2022 to 2023.

Housing First is based on the theory that most of the problems from which homeless individuals suffer, such as alcohol or drug addiction, are a product of their homelessness rather than the cause. Proponents believe these ancillary issues would improve if they had a stable and permanent residence.

Housing First policies have focused on the rapid rehousing of homeless individuals, with the bulk of federal funds going to so-called “permanent-supportive housing” (PSH). In theory, these facilities — such as San Francisco’s Mission Hotel — include supportive services, which are frequently neglected in practice. By federal law, PSH facilities cannot impose sobriety requirements on residents.

As a practical matter, Housing First has primarily amounted to an “out of sight, out of mind” solution to homelessness — people die indoors rather than on the sidewalk.

The fentanyl crisis has exposed the callousness of this policy. For example, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that 56% of fatal overdoses among New York City’s homeless population occurred in PSH facilities and shelters. The housing-centered policy approach is clearly failing, even by its own measures.

When we recognize the relationship between addiction and homelessness, it is easier to understand why the unsheltered population continues to grow.

The homeless encampments found in many major cities are often surrounded by open-air drug markets, which are a magnet for addicts. It is not unheard of for residents of these so-called “tent cities” to reject housing offers. According to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, 60% of the people offered housing by her outreach team “refused to accept help and move indoors.” Some already had housing but chose to stay on the streets anyway.

In the early 20th century, Nels Anderson — a formerly homeless sociologist who became the nation’s leading expert on homelessness — explained this phenomenon. Unlike users of alcohol or cocaine who could go without their drugs for lengthy periods, he wrote, “users of heroin or morphine are not able to separate themselves from the source of supply for so long a time.”

Fentanyl maintains an even tighter hold on opioid addicts than heroin, to the point that most users will neglect to seek treatment without some form of compassionate intervention. As one former drug addict put it, addiction is the loss of the freedom to abstain.

Affordable housing is an essential component of the homelessness solution, but it is by no means sufficient. West Virginia, where homelessness is rare but addiction is rampant, should serve as a grim reminder that substance abuse and overdose deaths do not disappear behind welcome mats.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Christopher Calton is a research fellow in housing and homelessness with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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Counterpoint: Housing Is a Human Right, Not a Privilege

By Karen Dolan

InsideSources.com

Homelessness in the United States surged by a record 12% between January 2022 and January 2023, according to a new report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the world’s wealthiest nation, how does this happen, and what can be done to remedy it?

The primary reason people are homeless is straightforward: they can’t afford a place to live.

 

This crisis isn’t new. For decades, affordable housing supply has failed to keep pace with demand. And the minimum wage has not kept pace with the rising cost of living and inflation over the last 50 years.

According to a report by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, every state in the country needs a sufficient supply of affordable housing. They found a shortfall of more than 7 million affordable rental units for people at or below the poverty level or for whom rent would consume more than 30% of their income.

The pandemic laid this crisis bare — but it also showed us solutions.

In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found there were 2 million households who were at least three months behind in their mortgage — an increase of 250% from the prior year — and more than 8 million renters behind on their rent.

Lower-income Americans of all races were affected, but the risk of losing housing fell disproportionately on Black and Latinx communities, which had lower levels of wealth and home ownership before the pandemic due to a history of systemic racism. They were also more likely to lose employment during the lockdowns in 2020.

Fortunately, lawmakers responded to the pandemic by expanding the social safety net. Alongside income supports like stimulus payments, expanded unemployment, and the expanded Child Tax Credit, they imposed eviction moratoria and emergency rental assistance programs.

These measures worked — many lower-income families could stay housed, and homelessness actually dropped. But unfortunately, the measures were temporary. When they lapsed, homelessness shot right back up by a record amount.

While the economic effects of the pandemic have eased, the causes of the housing crisis remain. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, about half of all U.S. workers can’t afford a one-bedroom rental anywhere — and a full-time worker making minimum wage can’t afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere.

I spoke with Kim Johnson, the organization’s manager of public policy.

“The U.S. has never invested enough in the long-term solutions we know help prevent and end homelessness,” Johnson said. “At current funding levels, only an estimated one in four households whose income qualifies them for housing assistance actually receive it, leaving the other 75% of households to spend over 30% — and for many of the lowest-income households, over 50% — of their income on rent and utilities every month.”

These households are often just one missed paycheck or unexpected bill away, Johnson said, from missing rent payments, facing eviction, or falling into homelessness.

So what can be done?

First, we must invest in affordable housing for those with the lowest incomes. We have to invest in upkeep and repairs. It’s not enough to build it and forget it. Housing stock must be maintained to be livable.

Congress should fully fund the Tenant-Based Rental Assistance program, which assists low-income renters with funds for housing needs. Resources must also help fight unnecessary evictions and keep families in their homes. We must invest in a permanent Emergency Rental Assistance Program and include housing grants for communities with the greatest need. And the Housing Choice Voucher program must be fully funded.

We also need a livable “ housing wage” of $28.58 per hour so that full-time minimum-wage workers can afford a modest two-bedroom rental unit.

Safe, stable, affordable housing is foundational to a healthy, productive society. It improves children’s educational attainment and physical, behavioral and mental health. It helps adults get and maintain better-paying jobs, improves their health outcomes and builds wealth.

A securely housed population benefits our whole society. Housing should be considered a human right for all, not just a privilege for some. We know what to do. Now, let’s do it.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Karen Dolan is a poverty expert at the Institute for Policy Studies. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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