A pre-pandemic analysis of data from the nation’s 20 largest cities revealed that the number of homeless deaths rose by 77% from 2015 to 2020.
The most common causes of death are either preventable or treatable: “drug overdoses, violence, traffic deaths and premature lethality of treatable conditions like heart disease,” according to the analysts.
This was entirely foreseeable — and avoidable.
In 2013, the federal government rolled out a one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness — Housing First — promising it would end homelessness in a decade. Officials opined that by wholly defunding services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, and instead funneling all aid into housing subsidies — mostly life-long housing subsidies without conditions such as sobriety or work, ever — homelessness in America would breathe its last breath.
However, despite a 47% increase in permanent housing units, a 200% increase in government spending and a 31.4% drop in homelessness over the seven years prior, America’s unsheltered homeless population rose by 20.5%.
Did the Biden administration abandon the experiment? No, it remains painstakingly wedded to Housing First, going so far as to remove the revealing report from public view.
We know 78% of the homeless struggle with the diseases of mental illness and addiction, whether it be a precursor to, or a result of, homelessness.
A Human First approach is the needed antidote. Human beings—especially those also struggling with homelessness — are complex. Housing is but one piece of the multi-faceted approach needed to support an individual to permanently emerge from homelessness.
Other crucial pieces include services to address mental and physical trauma, substance abuse services and personal accountability, including sobriety. Such services are actively discouraged under Housing First.
As people begin to heal from their illnesses, they need additional services such as employment training and life skills instruction to ensure that they can afford and maintain their own housing.
But alas, programs that combine housing with such requirements are not eligible for federal funding — the largest source of homelessness funding — because requiring such services is considered to be “barrier-creating” under the Housing First approach.
But who decided barriers are a bad thing?
Imagine raising children without barriers. Imagine being operated on by a doctor who graduated from a “no-barriers” medical school. Imagine a Mavericks game where the two teams played without barriers. Without barriers, no one prospers — the homeless are no exception.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s new mini-documentary further details the benefits to people and communities when a Human First roadmap is followed. It is told by people who have risen from the ashes of homelessness and the nonprofits that supported them in doing so.
Until public policy acknowledges the complexity that underlies homelessness, and the need for the guardrails of personal responsibility and accountability, the homeless and our cities will continue to perish.