Metropolis

We Can End Homelessness Today. We Just Don’t Want To

How to solve America’s homelessness crisis

San Francisco city-sanctioned homeless encampment with social distancing squares across from city hall. Source: KTLA/Josh Edelson/AFP.

Homelessness is an artificially created problem. Though it’s a dire reality faced by hundreds of thousands of people daily, it’s a reality that need not exist. This isn’t just idealistic posturing.

The primary challenge faced by any homeless person, definitionally, is that they do not have a permanent home to live in. If a homeless person is provided permanent housing, definitionally, they are no longer homeless. This is good news for any one concerned with the crisis that’s been plaguing cities and people around the country. There is a simple solution that can theoretically universally be implemented in relatively short order: provide more housing. Even better news is that numerous programs and case studies have proven it’s possible to nearly eradicate homelessness.

Standing in the way of solving it, however, are two artificial barriers. The first, zoning codes. Zoning, as it’s currently configured, precludes housing from being built where it’s needed most. All else being equal, prices rise where demand is high and supply is low. This imbalance is, scientifically speaking, historically out of whack in the United States right now. The second barrier is the gutting of our mental health system and associated support networks at the state and federal levels. Though breaking through this barrier isn’t contemplated in this piece to the extent it deserves, for our purposes here we can note that the decimation of funding serves to stigmatize the institution of homelessness and cruelly shifts the burden onto those who are least able to support themselves. These barriers have been enabled by our obstinance in trusting empirical data, and a lack of common humanity.

The continuation of this institution is both a moral and economic scandal of disastrous proportions. Far from only clustering in the tent cities of San Francisco, or along Los Angeles’ skid row, both in California, homelessness is a national problem that touches every state in the union. Yes, even that darling metropolis Austin, Texas, who has been singled out as the rightful heir to the riches squandered by California’s inability to manage its own crisis, is no exception.

To solve this needless crisis, there must be a targeted approach that tackles the artificial barriers that allow it to exist, a close reading of the programs that have been successful, and provision of aid to those who find themselves unhoused due to a lack of support services available to them. Homelessness requires urgent attention. While many are aware of just how bad the situation has gotten, there seems to be a fatalist acceptance that nothing can be done. But nothing could be further from the truth. Homelessness is not inevitable. It’s an indirect policy choice. We know how to solve it, so why does it still persist?

State of the crisis

Before diving into why homelessness persists, it’s important to understand the nature of the crisis. On any given night in 2020, there were 580,466 homeless people in America. That’s almost the population of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of this 580,000, roughly 40% were unsheltered, which points to the varying conditions of what it means to not have permanent housing. Not every homeless person spends their nights on the streets. Some sleep in cars, others in nightly shelters, and still more in what would appear to be permanent traditional housing with friends or family, but on a transient basis. Regardless of where they rest their head at night, however, precariousness is constant.

Subset of the people experiencing homelessness. Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, homelessness isn’t over-indexed to one subset of the population or another. From the National Alliance to End Homelessness State of Homelessness 2020: Edition report.

These people represent a cross section of America. They are associated with every region of the country, family status, gender category, and racial/ethnic group.”

Anyone familiar with the state of homelessness in America will have likely heard one of the following (unsubstantiated) claims: “Homeless people don’t want to be housed.” “Most of them are drug addicts.” “If only they worked harder, they could have their own place to live.” Doubtless, many of these stereotypes are motivated by racial or class prejudices. Perhaps unwittingly, these prejudices have seeped their way into the national consciousness over what it means to be unhoused, and consequently, how we respond to these pressing challenges. Erroneous stigmatization over the type of people who are unhoused (though whether they’re a saint or a felon shouldn’t matter at all), has led to broad neglect over how to help to solve the challenge, to say nothing of the lack of desire to interact with those who are homeless, which accentuates the reduction of humanity inflicted upon them.

This should go without saying, but homeless people are not inherently different than those who are housed. Through a series of varied, and often complex events outside of one’s control, one may find themself without permanent shelter. Every story is different. Some may not have the ability to pay for housing because they have fallen prey to the expense of exorbitantly high medical bills. Others may be escaping domestic abuse with no place to turn. Some may require social services and mental health treatment, and finding none, end up on the streets. Families may also have lost their homes to natural disasters, an increasing concern as climate change intensifies in coming years.

The leading cause of homelessness, though, is a lack of affordable housing. When prices increase in an entire region beyond what an individual or family is able to pay, and they don’t have the means or connections to move somewhere else, they may fall into homelessness. According to research from Zillow, “Communities where people spend more than 32% of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness.” This is tied directly to housing. This spells trouble for expensive coastal areas, who are already home to a disproportionate share of the homeless population.

Rate of homelessness plotted against share of income spent on rent. Source: Zillow.

Nationally, just under 50% of all renters pay more than 30% of their incomes towards housing. Distressingly, 11 million people (around a quarter of all renters) spend more than half of their income on housing. This is extractive capitalism at its worst. And it’s not improving. With rents rising across the country, stagnant wages, and an ever increasing shortage of housing, if permanent housing is not prioritized we could see a massive surge in homelessness. How many of people are one medical bill or natural disaster away from not having somewhere to sleep at night? It’s likely higher than even the most pessimistic estimates.

As I’ve written and spoken on issues of affordability ad nauseam, I’ll borrow from a piece a few weeks back:

“Even in our largest cities today, much of the land is zoned for detached single-family homes. This leaves fewer plots of land available for apartment buildings, regardless of the underlying demand. Where demand outpaces supply, prices rise. It’s little wonder that in San Jose, a city of one million people where it’s illegal to build anything but single-family homes on 94% of the land, the average rent for studio apartments exceeded $3,000 a month pre-pandemic. This is indicative of a systemically broken regulatory system, with far too little land allocated to multifamily housing.

Where prices rise to such an extreme, people are faced with decisions such as choosing between feeding themselves and their families or paying rent. Of course, this person will prioritize the next meal over shelter, and will ultimately leave the housing market altogether.

This was heartbreakingly profiled in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. If one is not able to afford the ever-increasing rent in a municipality, they may be at risk of being evicted. Once a notice of eviction shows up on a rental record, other landlords will not rent to that person for fear they will not get paid. Enter the vicious cycle: If one doesn’t have housing, they likely can’t get a job as most applications require a home address. Without a job, there is no hope of paying rent in the private market. With years long lists for public or subsidized housing (a result of decades of chronic underfunding), there is simply no where for one to live, or hope for them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Such a concept is fantasy.

Homelessness will never be resolved until zoning is resolved. Until we legalize housing to the extent that it’s affordable for everyone to have somewhere decent to live, and adhere to the belief that providing shelter is a basic human right, the crisis will continue. Homelessness is a societal failing, and any counterargument to this is a perpetuation of this failure.

Renter cost burden rates broken down by income group. Source: JCHS America’s Rental Housing 2020 report.

A final wrinkle to the challenge of homelessness is that it’s not a fixed issue. The number of people spending a night in a shelter, on the street, or with a friend or family member is fluid. Just 17% of the homeless population are chronically homeless (unhoused for more than six months). How can policy accurately be forged for an ever moving target? The fluidity in this number is attributable to the varied dynamics which cause homelessness, and events that shape the lives of unhoused people, which are not fixed. Solutions have historically been flexible to meet the ever-changing composition of the crisis, but this does little to provide permanent stability.

Current solutions

The way we deal with homelessness in the United States is sort of like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. Stay with me for a minute. As a majority of the homeless population is ever changing, there are constantly new people entering into homelessness, and others escaping from it. The bucket represents housing in America; the water, new entrants into the housing market. Not only is our housing bucket too small (read, not enough supply), but it also has holes in the bottom of it, which prevent full occupancy from being reached. One hole might be natural disasters. Another might be the unaffordable costs of living. Water (read, people), that filters down to the bottom (of the housing market), exits the holes and finds no support keeping it within that bucket. This metaphor could be extended to represent the quality of housing, but it gets a little muddled, so let’s just stick with supply.

Shelters are a sort of semiporous tape slapped onto the holes of the bottom of the bucket. They were never meant to be a permanent solution to the crisis. I don’t mean to denigrate shelters. They are absolutely essential. But they are simply shouldering far more of the burden than they were ever intended to. When temporary fixes are flexed into indefinite demands, there is little hope of permanent resolution. Policy has gotten complacent in assuming the free market would fill the void. But because it’s prohibitively expensive to deliver affordable units in many places (it costs $750,000 to build a unit of affordable housing in San Francisco, a city where more than 1% of its population is homeless), and outright prohibited in most places, shelters have strained to fill the holes in the system. They are just not equipped to do this.

State Senator Mae Flexer and South Park Inn assistant director Brian Baker at a homeless shelter in Hartford, Connecticut. Source: CT Senate Democrats.

There are qualitative challenges to our current solutions as well. Shelters can feel harsh, sterile, and jail-like to those staying behind their doors. They can restrict people of different genders from living with each other, outlaw the keeping of pets, and disallow possessions from being brought into the shelter. These restrictions strip away the last fibers of emotional connection one may be holding onto, when all else has been taken away from them. People are forced to decide between a roof over their head or fundamental emotional support. It’s a choice many reject. Indeed, a report released in September from the Coalition on Homelessness noted that a majority of the homeless participants in their survey would prefer a legal camp with amenities as opposed to living in an existing shelter. Autonomy and humanity matter.

There is urgency in the places where this crisis is taking the most severe toll. According to Heidi Marston, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority, “On average, 207 people are rehoused daily in the county, but 227 people are pushed into homelessness.” Our temporary solutions cannot keep up. Seeking to streamline the solutions, a federal judge ordered Los Angeles to shelter all homeless people on skid row on a controversially short timeline. But that doesn’t work if we can’t build sufficient permanent housing! Where will the people go? Shelters must remain as a bridge to permanent housing, but they cannot be confused for the destination.

We know how to resolve homelessness

We can do away with broken bucket proposals. According to (some quite extensive) research from The Lancet: “Permanent supportive housing (PSH) and income assistance interventions were effective in reducing homelessness and achieving housing stability.” Other research has pointed to a more than 90% success rate of avoiding a return to homelessness in providing PSH to chronically homeless. At a more digestible level, there have been several successful case studies in recent years that not only provided permanent housing for formerly homeless, but dramatically reduced the costs of homelessness for municipalities and increased the quality of life for participants in the programs. Some highlights:

Denver, Colorado: In one study, Permanent Supportive Housing saved the city $31,500 per participant. For members of the case study, “Who averaged nearly eight years of homelessness each prior to entering the program, 77% of those entering the program continue to be housed in the program. More than 80% have maintained their housing for six months.”

Utah: The state reduced its chronically homeless population by more than 90%. They’ve done this by providing homes for nearly 2,000 people with limited contingencies. While this isn’t a huge number, it can be a precedent for larger places.

Plans for the Central City Apartments in Salt Lake City, Utah, a PSH development. Source: First Step House.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Cash works, too! In this program, $7,500 was given to 50 people who had been homeless for more than six months. Those who received the money in this study found housing much quicker than those who didn’t. The money was not mismanaged, and helped get these people back on track. The lesson? If it costs too much, or will take too long to build the housing, give people money to participate in the market. They know what to do with it.

Not only is it far more ethical to house people (duh), but for those unsympathetic to such an argument, it’s actually far cheaper to house someone in a proper apartment building or home than on the streets. It costs San Francisco roughly $61,000 per year to support homeless folks in tents. Nationally, a chronically homeless person costs taxpayers $35,578 a year, whereas supportive housing provides a net savings of ~$5,000. We’re paying for more for inhumane outcomes. This is madness!

Other places are taking note. In Reno, Nevada, where Million-Dollar Murray famously cost the city more than a million dollars in treatment and supportive services, the housing authority is experimenting with providing subsidies that will stay with units approved to be a part of the program, not with the person. This will dilute the effect that vouchers have in concentrating formerly homeless together, in order to create environments that are more integrated along class lines. Just two weeks ago, Governor Newsom of California signed a $12 billion package with the goal of eradicating homelessness. The plan aims to provide housing for 65,000 people in 46,000 newly developed units.

The programs are working. Slowly, but surely. Since 2007, we’ve nearly doubled permanent supportive housing beds, up to nearly 370,000. This is good. The amount of homeless people have decreased in this time period as well, falling nearly 80,000 in 2019 from an estimated 647,258 in 2007.

Permanent supportive housing beds have nearly doubled in just over a decade. Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness.

It’s important to qualify that many of these programs are targeted at the chronically homeless, not the more transient homeless. For the chronically homeless, housing alone cannot solve the varied issues they face. Permanent housing must be coupled with support services for those who most need them. But for the more than 80% of homeless who simply need stable housing at an affordable price that isn’t threatened by climate change or weather extremes, building more housing is a pretty airtight solution.

How to eradicate homelessness

First, we need to view homeless people as what they are — human beings no different from those who have permanent shelter. Destigmatization is the foundational battle in the fight to eradicate homelessness. Intolerant and misinformed behavior cannot dictate our policy — directly or indirectly. In the land where everyone seeks a second opportunity, a chance at a new life, we turn our backs on those who need it most. If we don’t respect the basic humanity of homeless people, there is no chance we’ll be able to provide lasting solutions for them. The same applies to housing, generally. Housing is a human right. It’s high time we pick up the slack as the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and start acting like we value our fellow humans.

Second, we need to liberate cities from the clutches of zoning and build housing where it’s needed most. The more housing there is, relative to the population, the more affordable prices are. The more affordable prices are, the less susceptible people are to becoming homeless. Until we provide more housing for the homeless (and those who oscillate between housed and homeless), we will continue experiencing a crisis. NIMBYs, hit the road.

When this housing is created, it should look no different than regular housing. In fact, we should build as many mixed-income and affordable buildings as possible, indistinguishable nationwide. We should design them such that their residents are proud to live there, and passersby admire them. This is the key to creating strong, diverse, and ultimately resilient communities.

Broadway Affordable Housing, a development to house families earning 30%–60% of local median income, doesn’t look like affordable projects of the past. Source: Kevin Daly Architects.

From a planning perspective, we want people to feel a like an integral part of their communities. But allowing homelessness to exist creates a permanent underclass of transient, second-class citizens, who will never be a part of their broader communities. They also serve as a symbol to would-be residents or visitors that places don’t care enough about the basic decency of people to provide somewhere for them to live. Not a great tourism or economic development strategy. A well-functioning place doesn’t make the existence of homeless people illegal, as is the case in many suburbs and exclusionary enclaves. But rather, it makes the institution of homelessness nearly impossible because it has a robust supply of housing to accommodate people of all walks of life. Any place that does not provide sufficient housing is violating the sanctity of human life, and the social contract that we all sign.

Third, we have to stop looking at temporary solutions as permanent. Shelters carry far more than their fair share of the burden of this crisis, but they shouldn’t have to. Any system that relies on temporary fixes to function as permanent solutions isn’t working correctly. It’s time to get a new bucket.

Finally, we need to look to precedents in other places, and not be so proud to not acknowledge what’s working elsewhere. Whether it’s permanent supportive housing, cash payments, SROs, or tiny home villages that can be built quickly and inexpensively, but still confer a sense of community and security, we need to adopt best practices and leave biases at home.

These steps should go far in eliminating the artificiality of our homeless crisis. Don’t mistake this call for housing and support as a simplistic one, though. The process of providing shelter has ground on for decades, making little headway against entrenched parties who rely on faulty logic and stereotypes to make their hollow opposition to common humanity.

Allowing homelessness to continue when we empirically know what works is a matter of politics, choice, and prioritization. It is the most visible manifestation of America’s oxymoronic marriage of supply side hypercapitalism and heavily regulated land-use control. We must reject it. The fundamental question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we value homeless people as human beings. If we do (and I hope all of you readers answer in the affirmative), let’s start calling the state of homelessness what it is: a crisis of humanity. Only then can we move forward, provide support, and truly deal with this pressing issue of national consequence.

Passionate about cities and the potential to create better places at the intersection of Real Estate Development & Urban Planning. Twitter: @cobylefko

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