In an effort to address the growing crisis of houselessness, the Biden administration recently announced a new nationwide initiative called “House America.” The initiative is a welcome move, but the degree of its actual success will depend on how the program is implemented at the state and local levels, and what state and local authorities do, specifically. It is difficult, at this early stage, to judge the program or make predictions since much of the language being used in press materials is quite generalized. There are some hopeful indications, but there are also some signs that the program runs the risk of making the same mistake that other initiatives designed to address houselessness have made, that of relying on short-term solutions which, while needed, do not address or fix the root, systemic causes leading to the problem in the first place. (Throughout this article I will use the terms “houseless” and “houselessness” instead of the more widely used but less desirable terms “homeless” and “homelessness,” except for when the latter terms are part of official titles).
Sweeping is for litter, not people
Let’s begin by acknowledging some of the more hopeful signs. The language driving the announcement of the “House America'' initiative, fortunately, focuses on the humanity of those who are experiencing houselessness and are housing insecure, and their basic need for shelter and safety. Hopefully, the agencies leading the initiative, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), will be able to oversee state and local efforts in such a way that resources are not misused for inhumane approaches such as those exemplified by the De Blasio administration in New York City.
For those unfamiliar with the De Blasio administration’s brute force approach to houselessness, they have been conducting frequent “sweeps” in which city workers and police officers go through neighborhoods and tear down tents and encampments so that people cannot live there anymore. The rationale has been that the city’s economy, wounded by the pandemic, relies on tourism, implying of course that tourists are likely to come if there are less houseless people on the streets. First of all, “sweeping” is for trash or litter, not people. But more to the point, these interventions do not address the reasons beneath a person’s experience of houslessness, nor prevent it from occurring. In fact, it is an acute overreaction, and often leaves members of our communities—made vulnerable by the lack of and/or failure of social safety nets to catch them in times of crisis—more vulnerable. It exacerbates the issue and pushes these folks out to under-resourced, less touristy neighborhoods. Tragically, while NYC is a representative case, it is not a unique one. Sweeps have been used in many cities across the country including Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Denver, and Austin.
The “Housing First” approach
The guiding directive of the “House America” initiative appears to discourage inhumane and ineffective approaches such as “sweeping.” According to USICH, “House America” will be driven by a “Housing First” approach. First implemented by the G.W. Bush administration, continued by the Obama administration, and then undermined by the Trump administration, “Housing First” is a philosophy of immediately, unconditionally providing shelter for houseless people without preconditions, such as work or sobriety requirements, that can interrupt and delay the process of getting housed. Without the consistency and safety that stable housing provides, it is not realistic or reasonable to impose work and sobriety requirements, especially when 24 percent of those who are houseless have chronic illnesses, and disabilities. Housing First is a more humane, evidence-based approach and we know that it works.
Addressing the structural roots of the problem
The individual components that make up “House America,” such as its commitment to add and sell 100,000 affordable housing units, are a good start. They are certainly far more constructive and helpful than the aforementioned crackdowns and sweeps that have been used in NYC and elsewhere. But, by itself, “House America” does not (and cannot) address the deeper, systemic issues that contribute to the houselessness crisis. Moreover, these systemic causes intertwine and overlap, making it so that no individual cause can truly be addressed without addressing the others.
For instance, the costs of living keep soaring, especially in cities, while wages remain stagnant for most working Americans, making it increasingly difficult for the very people who provide essential services in urban areas to cover their own basic needs. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, exacerbated this and other trends that were already worrisome to begin with, such as the rising costs of both renting and buying a home, which have been skyrocketing during the pandemic. COVID-19 simply made the inequities of our systems more visible. Now, with the end of the federal moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, and many people are still struggling to cover the cost of housing, there will likely be a surge in eviction and houselessness rates in coming months.
The persistence of housing discrimination
This brings us to yet another systemic factor: the links between houselessness and housing discrimination. The impending eviction crisis will almost certainly add to the many pandemic-related disparities experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, who historically face higher rates of evictions. While the Fair Housing Act legally forbids housing discrimination based on race, gender, or marital status, BIPOC renters, particularly women, nevertheless experience disproportionate levels of evictions.
Formal evictions, moreover, are just one way that landlords are able to get tenants to leave. Evictions by informal means—such as harassing texts and emails pressuring tenants to leave, bribing them, removing their possessions, or changing the locks—are often used as a way to avoid legal complications. These methods work because even though tenants can technically file lawsuits, most of them often find it simpler and easier to just move. Informal evictions, too, have been on the rise during the pandemic and have disproportionately affected BIPOC communities.
While there is a strong causal relationship between evictions and houselessness, they are only one piece of a much larger puzzle. There is a long, multi-faceted legacy in this country of anti-Black racial discrimination in housing policy, and while great strides of progress have been made in the legal and political spheres, enforcement is lax and there are too many ways to circumvent anti-discrimination laws. Culturally and institutionally, we continue to penalize people for being poor, for being BIPOC, or for being women, and these cumulative penalizations cause far too many working people to end up houseless. Until we address the full range of systemic root causes that contemporarily and historically perpetuate the housing crisis, initiatives like House America, while certainly well-intentioned, can at best only be drops in a bucket that is riddled with holes.
Wendi Williams is Dean and Professor, School of Education, Mills College.