Last month, the U.S. government released its annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness on a single night this past winter. The latest figures confirm the tragedy we all see in communities across the country: 650,000 people sleeping on the streets or in shelters, the highest figure since the count started in 2007. The government also released data showing that last year, almost 900,000 people fell into homelessness for the first time, a 25 percent increase from the previous year and by far the largest increase ever recorded.
As someone who began my work in housing four decades ago volunteering in a homeless shelter in college and then led the nation’s homelessness strategy when I was secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it’s especially frustrating because we know how to stem the tide. We’ve done it before. We know what works.
Despite the devastation of the Great Recession, from 2009 to 2016, we reduced chronic and family homelessness by one-third nationally. And with bipartisan support from Congress, led by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), we cut veterans’ homelessness in half and ended it in more than 100 cities and states. What alarms me is that instead of consensus around proven solutions, we’re seeing a growing cynicism that threatens to sap support from the very remedies that could reverse the growth of homelessness in America.
At the risk of over-simplifying, the growing homeless population is a result of basic math — not enough people can afford a place to live. Rents increased at their highest rates on record amid COVID-19. Since then, housing costs have gobbled up a larger and larger share of a family’s income, and the rent burden only gets worse the poorer you are. Rent is the largest and among the most regressive burdens we place on American families. On average, Americans overspend on rent to the tune of $150 billion per year.
We’re also seeing high interest rates, rising insurance costs, and other financial strains putting immense pressure on affordable housing providers, especially operators of what’s known as permanent supportive housing. These homes provide not just a place to live but wraparound services, particularly for people with substance use disorders or mental health issues. From Los Angeles to DC, those operators are struggling in the face of skyrocketing costs and limited service funding. Add to that an influx of migrants, the expiration of Covid-era supports, a devastating uptick in fentanyl abuse, and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a growing number of people in shelters and on the streets.
The solution, then, seems equally simple: do everything we can to build and preserve affordable homes and enact policies that keep people stably and safely housed. Of course, the former works: Experts tell us we’re 7 million housing units short of what we need to serve the lowest income people. And amid COVID-19, we again proved the latter approach does, too. Despite skepticism of rental relief programs, rental supports kept families housed and kept affordable housing providers afloat. What’s more, there’s mounting evidence that well-targeted programs save money as well as lives by avoiding shelters, hospitals and other costly interventions.
Instead, cynics are taking aim at the very programs proven to keep people housed. Take, for instance, the policy known as “housing first.” For a generation, politicians in both parties followed the data: that providing a permanent home first allows people exiting homelessness to then find work, get counseling, or receive health care. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, between 75 and 91 percent of households remain in a home a year after being rapidly provided with a permanent home.
Yet in some quarters, we’re seeing lawmakers threaten to withdraw support from housing first programs, baffling considering the merits. On top of that, we’re seeing growing support for encampment sweeps and the criminalization of homelessness — kicking people off park benches and writing tickets for sleeping in bus shelters — without providing alternatives. Pushing people out of a public park may remove them from public view, but it doesn’t solve the problem.
Why the retreat from what works?
It’s easier and more politically expedient to call in the bulldozers than do the painstaking work of coordination, financing, and cross-partisan partnership that’s a model for ending homelessness. When I was at HUD, we worked to challenge and support mayors and governors to end veterans’ homelessness. Congress provided funding, community leaders and business owners rallied together, and we had a laser-like focus on solutions that could keep people out of shelters and off the streets and get them quickly into a home.
We’re seeing the same level of focus and creativity in some pockets of the country. Bucking the trend of rising homelessness, Houston has cut its homeless population by two thirds, coordinating the efforts of government and some 100 local nonprofits — and we’ve seen similar success in Chattanooga and Austin. Oregon is getting creative, using Medicaid dollars to finance services to help people experiencing homelessness get the services and stability that we know will keep them in a home for the long haul. And despite the grim national trend, half of all states saw reductions in veterans’, family, and parenting youth homelessness, the result of targeted, consistent investments.
To be sure, fighting the distrust and disinformation surrounding homelessness is a significant challenge, particularly in our political environment. But if we double down on what works, rally together our allies, and disprove the cynics, we can fix our broken housing system in America.
Shaun Donovan is CEO and president of the affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners. He served as HUD secretary and director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.
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