United States’ decadelong homeless policy, a policy advocates continue to pursue at the peril of every American, is a colossal failure, according to a recently released white paper by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Human beings are perishing on our streets in skyrocketing numbers. Yet policymakers continue to squander those lives, and taxpayer funds, by doubling and even tripling down on this same failed policy while asking for ever greater sacrifices from our citizens.
The “experts” promised us in 2013 that that a “housing only” approach — Housing First — would eliminate homelessness within a decade. However, the data — both numeric and anecdotal — evidences its epic failure. We need a new approach, one that addresses the root causes of homelessness, which include trauma, untreated mental illness and substance abuse.
Some suggest the reason for the pre-COVID-19 homelessness surge is a lack of funding. However, the nation’s unsheltered homeless population rose by 20.5% under a 200% increase in federal homelessness assistance spending in the decade leading up to 2019, according to a report of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Others suggest the reason is a lack of affordable housing units. However, federal data indicates there was a 42.7% increase in the number of permanent housing units dedicated to the homeless during the 2014-2019 period.
In California, the only state to go all in on Housing First in 2016, unsheltered homelessness — largely those living on the street — grew by 47.1% despite a 33% increase in the number of housing units and a 101% increase in spending.
If housing alone were the solution to homelessness, the unsheltered homeless population would have declined in California and at the federal level.
The stunning rise in street homelessness is a crisis in and of itself. A new study of the U.S.’s 20 largest cities shows that “the number of deaths among people living without housing shot up by 77% in the five years ending in 2020,” and that’s before the pandemic took aim at the immunocompromised and those with many of the pre-existing conditions that tend to plague the homeless.
The most common causes are death are either preventable or treatable, The Guardian reports: “drug overdoses, violence, traffic deaths and premature lethality of treatable conditions like heart disease.” Under the shift to Housing First, however, the services needed to address these issues are no longer funded.
San Francisco’s recently opened Tenderloin Linkage Center provides a glaring example of what happens when one of the greatest underlying factors of homelessness — addiction — is ignored. City officials announced the center as a place for those struggling with addiction and homelessness could get the services they need to escape. However, the center allows continued illegal drug use at the site, which has quickly become a cesspool of illegal activity including open-air drug use and sales.
Housing First was initially introduced by HUD in 2008 to address the chronically homeless — those struggling with severe mental illness and addiction and often the ones those on the streets—which represents 10-20% of homeless population. This approach offered them subsidized housing for life where treatment was no longer funded and in fact, was expressly prohibited as a condition of the housing.
Without evidence it would be an effective approach for the remaining 80-90% of the nation’s homeless population — 78% of whom struggle with milder forms of mental illness and 75% of whom struggle with milder forms of substance abuse disorder — HUD rolled out Housing First as a one-size-fits-all “solution.” This resulted in our providing life-long subsidized housing, without treatment services, to all struggling with homelessness.
Homelessness is now surging everywhere because this approach actively discourages behavior change and no longer funds the treatment they need. What’s more, it ensures that nearly everyone who enters the homelessness system will not exit, as they are offered subsidized housing for life, without any expectation of healing and work, ever. In turn, this has fueled the affordable housing backlog faced in many regions throughout the country.
Trauma-informed treatment for substance abuse and mental illness is the most compassionate of assistance for the homeless, and it is the most effective. Programs such as Saint John’s Program for Real Change in Sacramento and Haven for Hope in San Antonio have demonstrated that with the proper intervention and incentives, treatment coupled with accountability serves to emancipate the homeless and puts them on a path toward realizing their full potential.
• Michele Steeb is a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and oversees the Foundation’s initiative to transform United States’ and Texas’ homelessness policy. She is author of “Answers Behind the RED DOOR: Battling the Homelessness Epidemic.”
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