Homelessness has become the humanitarian crisis of the decade. It threatens the health, safety and well-being of the homeless, in addition to the communities and business owners that have been crushed under its weight.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation believes in the dignity and worth of all human beings, and the societal good that is achieved as they are set free. It is this deeply rooted set of beliefs that propelled us to launch our People First initiative… to advocate for policies that will free the people struggling with homelessness and the many communities across the country struggling, too.

Freedom, however, is not possible without the guardrails of responsibility… indeed, this is the crux of today’s crisis.

Origins of the Crisis

In 2013, the U.S. instituted a seismic shift in how it approached homelessness. Rather than fund the combination of housing and treatment services to support the homeless in healing from the disease and trauma underlying their struggle, federal officials opined that by wholly defunding such services, they could increase the number of permanent housing subsidies for the homeless.

Their experiment cast aside conditions such as work and sobriety requirements with the rationale that they were “barriers” to the homeless’ acceptance of housing. Non-profits that had insisted on such requirements disappeared as they became ineligible for funding from the nation’s largest financier of homelessness—the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

They promised this approach would “end homelessness in 10 years.” Yet, one decade later—to the surprise of few who served on the front lines in this battle and those who understand human nature—our country, including the state of Texas, faces a crisis of seismic proportions.

The experiment in “helping” the homeless by absolving them from basic societal tenants has instead resulted in immense harm to the homeless and to communities and businesses across the nation.

Why This Fight?

A homeless person is at much greater risk of exposure to violence, disease, and malnutrition. If they have chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma, homelessness accelerates the effects of those diseases given the difficulty in accessing medications and in storing them properly. Behavioral health issues such as schizophrenia, substance use disorders, and depression often develop, and are made worse, while experiencing homelessness.

A pre-pandemic data analysis from the nation’s 20 largest cities—including Austin, Texas—revealed a 77% increase in homeless deaths over the 2015-2020 period. These majority of these deaths were preventable or treatable, according to the analysts.

Homelessness significantly impacts our communities and businesses as well. Not only is it extremely difficult to watch the homeless literally disintegrate on our streets, it poses risks to public health, to the availability of healthcare and public safety resources available to a community, and to the use of public parks, lands, waterways, and sidewalks that have become riddled with needles, human feces, and debris. Thousands of businesses—small and large—have had to dedicate their limited resources to cleaning up after the homeless who leave intravenous drug paraphernalia and excrement in their doorways.

There is a better way, and TPPF is dedicating significant resources to liberate all impacted by this policy failure.

Winning the Battle

Instead of straitjacketing the homeless, communities, and businesses in suffering, we must employ a Human First approach to homelessness that insists on the guardrail of accountability at every level of the system; from the individual level, to the non-profit level, to the elected bodies responsible for public policy.

This approach recognizes that human beings are complex and that housing is but one piece of the multi-faceted approach needed to support them on the path to healing and well-being. It recognizes the need to fund, and in some cases mandate, disease treatment. Fully 78% of the homeless contend with the diseases of mental illness and addiction, whether a precursor to, or a result of, their homelessness. As the homeless begin to heal, we must provide additional services such as employment training and life skills instruction to ensure that once they obtain housing, they can independently maintain it.

TPPF’s mini documentary on this proven approach features people who have risen from the ashes of homelessness and the non-profits that supported them in doing so. The underlying thread to each of their stories is that liberation is not achieved by doing what you want, at the expense of others. True liberation is about responsible action, responsible decisions, and responsible kindness and compassion.

Through its People First initiative, TPPF is leading the nationwide effort to liberate those impacted by the failures of the Housing First policy approach by providing a policy and accountability framework to support the homeless and communities in realizing their full potential.