In the weeks since the Texas Department of Transportation began clearing homeless encampments that have become an unofficial and unwelcome symbol of life in Austin, the homelessness crisis has shown few signs of slowing down. A five-acre temporary campsite established by the state has seen little traffic while tents and makeshift shelters continue to pop up beneath overpasses almost as soon as they are cleared.
Cleaning up the encampments is a good first step to address the growing threat to public health and safety, but solving the problem will require a more robust policy solution. During a recent appearance on Fox News, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson correctly pointed out that solving Austin’s homelessness crisis requires federal, state, and local government to work alongside nonprofits. One action that Secretary Carson can take that will make that easier is reforming his department’s “Housing First” policy.
Housing First is an approach launched under President George W. Bush and dramatically expanded into a one-size-fits-all policy under President Obama. It provides those experiencing homelessness with subsidized housing with no expectations. Under this approach, nonprofits requiring their clients to abide by accountability measures, such as pursuing sobriety or attending regular job training classes, are barred from receiving state and federal grants. While many consider Housing First to be a revolutionary success, actual outcomes show that gains are short-lived at best.
Utah, which was once lauded by Housing First advocates, initially reported reducing its homeless population by 91 percent between 2005 and 2015. But a recent report from the state’s Legislative Auditor General found that number was based on flawed data that falsely inflated the decrease in homelessness. To add insult to injury, the homeless population in Utah has nearly doubled since 2016.
Utah is only one example. In July, Austin Mayor Steve Adler visited Los Angeles and Seattle, which embraced the model and yet continue to lose their battles with homelessness. California made Housing First official state policy in 2016 and required that all state funds for addressing homelessness be directed solely to programs that provide housing — with no preconditions or expectations of recovery. Since that time, the state’s crisis has only grown worse with homelessness increasing in the city of Los Angeles by 16 percent from 2018.
Seattle, likewise, has struggled to make a dent in its homeless population. In March, a low-barrier tiny house village was forced to shut down because of rampant drug use and criminality.
These failures stand in stark contrast to the success of Austin’s own Community First! Village, which Secretary Carson cited as an example of innovation. Operated by the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes, it is a planned community of tiny houses and mobile homes specifically designed to provide housing for those struggling with homelessness. Unlike Seattle’s tiny house village and other Housing First programs, residents of Community First! are required to undergo a criminal background check and are expected to pay rent and abide by civil law and community rules.
Alan Graham, the founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, points to the community’s rules as the key to its success. “When you have skin in the game you’re invested in your community,” Graham said. A major problem with the Housing First policy, according to Graham, is that it focuses solely on giving someone a roof over their head and not allowing for the expectations that enable residents of the Community First! Village to thrive.
Nearly 75 percent of unsheltered people in the United States struggle with substance abuse disorders. Giving them a roof over their head without expecting them to address the root causes of their homelessness robs them of their inherent dignity and the opportunity to reach their full potential. Secretary Carson has a unique opportunity to lead the nation in solving the growing homelessness crisis. His first step should be reforming HUD’s Housing First policy and embracing innovative programs that put people first by expecting more of them than mere survival.