On Aug. 27, Austin launched a campaign called, “a week of action to support ending homelessness.” It admittedly sounds wonderful… something around which all should be able to coalesce. Instead, we should heed the lesson from Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Austin’s efforts to address its spiraling homelessness crisis are clothed in an imaginary suit.
Between 2017 and 2019, the homelessness population in Austin increased by 10.7%, with the unsheltered population increasing by 30%. Recent 2020 numbers show an additional 11% increase over 2019, even as city and county officials doubled spending to fix the problem. And it’s even more dire when considering that the majority of families are not included in Austin’s count due to government’s unrealistic definition of what constitutes a homeless family.
The numbers don’t lie. The approach chosen by Austin’s county and city leaders is simply not working. However, Austin’s elected officials continue to stand 100% behind their failed approach, and in fact, the City has doubling down on it, throwing another $17M—a 37% spending increase—in its 2019-2020 budget.
The approach they continue to follow is called Housing First. Its goal is the provision of life-long, subsidized housing to all who struggle with homelessness. There is no expectation that the people housed will address their underlying issues of addiction, mental illness, trauma, lack of work experience, and/or lack of education. They will continue to receive subsidized housing while they engage in the behaviors that led them to homelessness.
The origins of this approach date back to the administration of President George W. Bush, when it was unveiled by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to get the severely mentally ill, drug-addicted and/or disabled homeless off the streets. Between 2011 and 2013, the Obama Administration made a major shift, rolling it out to all 500,000+ people struggling with homelessness without any credible evidence it would work across different homeless populations.
Under Housing First, not only is a single man struggling with drug addiction and mental illness treated the same as a mother with children, any organization that receives taxpayer dollars to serve the homeless is expressly prohibited from requiring sobriety, work training, or counseling as a condition of housing.
HUD promised Housing First would end homelessness in a decade. Instead, homelessness increased by 16% nationwide, in spite of a 50% increase in funding and an economy that was booming prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The homeless population in Utah, once lauded by Housing First advocates as a glowing success, experienced a doubling of its homeless population since 2016.
California made Housing First official state policy in 2016, requiring that all state funds for addressing homelessness be directed solely to the Housing First approach with no preconditions or expectations of recovery. California has since seen a 16.4% increase in homelessness.
Austin has experienced devastatingly similar results under its Housing First approach.
For many living on the streets, the path to homelessness began with childhood trauma and adversity. By the time a homeless child is 8 years old, one in three has a major mental disorder. Homeless children also have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems. They are also twice as likely to go hungry and experience illness as other children. All of these factors contribute to learning difficulties, making them twice as likely to repeat a grade compared to non-homeless children. Without appropriate interventions, a homeless child easily becomes an addicted, mentally ill, and seemingly unemployable homeless adult.
The rising tide of homelessness today will become a tsunami tomorrow unless Austin shifts away from Housing First to a “People First” approach that supports people in addressing the root causes of their homelessness. Yes, they need housing, but they need it coupled with the services that help them address that which is at the root of their struggle with homelessness.
Austin has repeated many of California’s disastrous mistakes, but it is not too late to turn things around. City and county leaders must abandon their failed one-size-fits-all approach—focused on the provision of toothbrushes and deodorant to those living on the streets—and replace it with an individualized approach that provides the homeless with the resources they need to address the issues that are preventing them from becoming the individuals they were ordained to be.