The answer is affordable housing
By Calvin Streeter

Thanksgiving Week is a perfect time to remember our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness — and start working towards ending it. This year, however, we are seeing a continuing trend that I think is wrong. More cities across the country are trying to address the problem of homelessness through ordinances that criminalize life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, eating, and even sitting on the street, in parks, on the beach or other public spaces.

Affordable housing image, iStock

This is wrong and does nothing to address the problem.

Such measures actually make ending homelessness more difficult because the associated fines and criminal records create additional barriers to finding employment, securing housing and accessing other public services. Nor do they make sense from a cost perspective because they impose greater demands on an already overburdened criminal justice system. The cost of housing an individual in jail is often three times as great as housing that person in a shelter.

A friend once told me that the problem of homelessness is not complex. He said: “People are homeless because they don’t have a place to live. If we give them a permanent safe place to live, they won’t be homeless.”

Although it sounds naïve, there is an element of truth to that statement.

Prior to the 1980s, we did not have the kind of mass homelessness we now experience. There was a surplus of 300,000 affordable housing units in 1970, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness. But in the 1980s, affordable housing began to disappear as the federal government cut funding for housing assistance. By 1985, there was a shortfall of 3.3 million units nationwide. By 2009, the shortfall in affordable housing units had increased to 5.5 million units.

Other federal policies, such as deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, cutbacks in the social safety net, the rise in incarceration rates, and the failure to adjust the minimum wage to keep pace with the cost of living, have all contributed to the homeless crisis we face today.

Many communities have tried to manage the problem by creating emergency shelters and other temporary services to meet the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness. However, they have not committed the necessary resources to help such people transition into permanent housing.

If we are serious about ending homelessness and not just managing the problem, we must create more opportunities for permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness.

One approach that has shown promise is called Housing First. Traditional approaches to housing people experiencing homelessness has demanded that they meet certain criteria before they are eligible for permanent housing, such as completing some intervention, avoiding arrests or remaining sober for some period. The Housing First approach centers on getting people housed as quickly as possible and then providing the services needed to maintain that housing.

Calvin Steeter
Calvin Streeter

The vast majority of individuals and families become homeless because of a personal crisis such as the loss of a job, a major medical expense, or family violence. For them, the Housing First approach is ideal because it provides them with the assistance they need to find permanent housing quickly and without conditions. Data show that the more quickly such individuals and families secure permanent housing, the more likely they are to remain housed in the future.

For those troubled by the lack of up-front requirements in Housing First, take comfort in your wallet. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that if we don’t house these individuals, it will cost a community up to $50,000 per individual per year because of the high costs associated with public services such as emergency room visits and incarceration.

The data behind Housing First show that it is less financially risky for a community than the alternative of not housing those who need housing assistance.

For those experiencing chronic homelessness — about 15 percent of the homeless population — Housing First is also a viable approach, but the expectation is that the need for specialized and intensive services may continue indefinitely. This approach, often referred to as Permanent Supportive Housing, combines affordable permanent housing with a tailored package of supportive services. In Austin, Dallas and Houston, homeless advocates are working with managed care organizations to better design programs that link housing and health care, recognizing the effect both have on each other.

We can end homelessness — but only if we address the shortfall in affordable housing and use proven strategies to stabilize those who are experiencing homelessness. Having laws that criminalize life-sustaining activities is not one of those strategies.

By Calvin Streeter, Meadows Foundation Centennial Professor in the Quality of Life in the Rural Environment in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of directors for the Austin-based nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). 

Posted November 23, 2015. A version of this piece appeared in Texas Perspectives.