The governor has plans to spend an extraordinary sum of public money on the homeless, most of which would be used to put them up in hotels. Sounds compassionate. But it’s another empty promise. Housing-first policy is indistinguishable from housing-and-nothing-else.
Part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $100 billion “California Comeback Plan” to offset the pandemic lockdown damage includes $12 billion to expand, he says, “successful programs” for the homeless and “end family homelessness within five years.”
Of those billions, nearly 60% would be devoted to funding more temporary housing under an initiative dreamed up last year “to secure hotel and motel rooms for vulnerable people experiencing homelessness.” Most of remaining dollars would go toward building “affordable housing” for the homeless and poor.
But building homes and then declaring victory is of no great use. More than housing, the homeless need to overcome the disorders that in a real sense chased them into the streets. Otherwise, housing first subsidizes the behaviors that are in part, and in some cases wholly, the root cause of homelessness.
While Newsom’s plan includes the provision of services to the homeless, the government’s record in adequately treating those on the street is, to be generous, spotty.
Despite its limitations, the housing first approach “has become the political class’ primary mantra on homelessness,” Christopher F. Rufo wrote in “No Way Home,” the Pacific Research Institute’s book on California’s homelessness crisis. The movement’s architect, Sam Tsemberis, who’s said that if housing is given to the homeless, “you will solve chronic homelessness,” has been feted as a savior.
The Washington Post called him in 2015 the outsider who accidentally solved chronic homelessness. Street Roots, a Portland, Oregon, street weekly, says “Tsemberis has revolutionized the way we think about homelessness,” because housing a “person before attempting to fix their underlying issues works best.”
But Rufo, a filmmaker and researcher who has been in the streets documenting the homelessness crisis, doesn’t buy it.
“Since Tsemberis ‘all but solved chronic homelessness’ in 2015, the number of chronically homeless individuals has actually increased 16% nationwide,” he says. Beneath the simple housing-first rhetoric, “there is a complex reality on homelessness, housing, addiction, and mental illness that defies the certitudes of housing-first activists.”
The housing-first model has been peddled as a way to save taxpayers’ money. But does it? Maybe in the short term, but over the long haul, that premise is questionable, because, as Rufo says it “does not meaningfully improve human lives.” The cycle of homelessness isn’t broken by temporarily putting a roof over someone’s head.
Housing first’s most glaring flaw is its lesser focus on the human care that most of the homeless need. According to the California Policy Lab, three in four of the unsheltered homeless have substance abuse problems, 78% have mental health conditions, and 84% have physical health issues. Though housed, says Rufo, they remain “broken, wracked by the cruelest psychoses, compulsions, and torments.”
Michele Steeb, former executive director of Sacramento’s Saint John’s Program for Real Change, which supports women and children suffering from homelessness, and David Flanagan, a Sacramento business owner who sits on the organization’s board, suggest the state abandon housing first as its “sole approach to homelessness.”
“It strictly prohibits,” they wrote in a CalMatters commentary, “any requirement of service engagement – including mental health and addiction services – to address the underlying factors that led to a person’s homelessness.”
Instead, they recommend that officials dedicate public resources to “programs that couple housing and health services, including programs that require sobriety”; make the funding of flexible approaches, “including programs tailored to the unique needs of families” a priority; and ensure that spending “is tied to programs that have demonstrated results in helping the homeless reach their full human potential, including self-sustainability when appropriate.”
Homelessness will never be solved by government, no matter how much money it pours into programs.
But it can help by working closely with, and often deferring to, private groups that have succeeded in getting people off the streets and back into their lives; seeking and implementing innovative remedies; and, especially in California, making a genuine effort to cut housing costs.
Great Society spending won’t get the job done.
Kerry Jackson is the co-author of “No Way Home: The Crisis of Homelessness and How to Fix It with Intelligence and Humanity,” and is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.