As the winter holidays approach, freezing temperatures threaten people who are homeless. Many Austin churches work with the ARCH — or Austin Resource Center for the Homeless — to prevent deaths from exposure by serving as overflow homeless shelters.
I worked in one of these shelters last winter. One night, a woman talked for hours about the abuse she’d suffered as a child and how doctors were now trying to trick her into believing she has schizophrenia. After dinner, she said something I’ll never forget: “I’ve hated almost every day of my life, but I’m so thankful God keeps giving me more days to try to change things. I’m going to change things one day.”
Unfortunately for this woman and many others in her situation, our public policies on homelessness make it harder — not easier — for them to change things.
Nationwide, the effort to end homelessness has spurred a movement to expand permanent taxpayer-funded housing called Housing First. The idea is to move people from the streets directly into an apartment paid for with taxpayer dollars. Beneficiaries don’t have to be employed, sober or in treatment to maintain the housing.
The theory behind Housing First is that if people don’t have to worry about securing shelter, they will focus on securing employment or mental health treatment. Many studies laud Housing First as the solution to the problem of chronic homelessness.
But what these studies don’t tell you is that one of the goals of most Housing First programs is increasing access to government benefits and services. In fact, more government dependence is considered a metric of success by many Housing First programs.
That’s true here in Austin, too. Most local taxpayer-funded organizations, run by people passionate about ending homelessness and poverty, believe in Housing First. Some see housing itself as a behavioral health service and offer permanent taxpayer-supported housing to the homeless population.
What these groups get wrong is that no amount of housing or other services will change a person’s life if that person has not made a decision to change.
Instead of handouts, we should focus on services that enable and encourage change. Our current approach makes it difficult for people to change their lives because it makes them dependent on government services, often enabling them to continue harmful behaviors.
Haven for Hope in San Antonio is providing the right kind of care. It offers safe shelter but incentivizes recovery and self-improvement through a transformational program. As program participants work on job training and employment readiness, education, behavioral health, or spirituality, they can earn their way to better housing or even their own apartment.
The point is, they are the ones who choose to move forward and transform their lives, not a government program.
Here in Austin, we need the same approach. One night every January in Austin, volunteers search the city to do a headcount of all the people sleeping on the streets or in homeless shelters. Each year, they find about 2,000 people. The federal government believes there are many more than 2,000 people homeless in Austin each year, and puts the estimate closer to 7,000.
If you include those receiving some kind of public support, the estimate jumps up to about 13,000. If 13,000 is an accurate estimate, about 1 out of every 100 people living in Austin is homeless or living in government-funded housing.
None of those people will get to sit around their dining room table and share Thanksgiving dinner with their family or rush to the living room to see what Santa brought down their chimneys for Christmas.
Rather than giving unhelpful handouts, Haven for Hope has empowered thousands to change their lives and become self-sufficient, saving millions of taxpayer dollars that would’ve funded emergency and crisis services, jail or unending welfare.
Rather than Housing First, Austin should first consider a hot meal, a bed for the night, and the right kind of care and compassion — the kind that makes change and transformation possible.
Murphy is a mental health policy fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.