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A bipartisan approach to helping the homeless

AP Photo/Richard Vogel
Homeless men stand by their tents along the street across from Los Angeles City Hall on Oct. 22, 2022.

If bipartisanship really were to take hold in either the lame-duck session or the next Congress, action aimed at mitigating street homelessness would be a good place to start.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Austin, Portland, Seattle and New York face a wave of what the British call “rough sleepers,” whether in tents or on heating grates. As New York subway riders tragically learned, some are not just unhoused but unhinged — and have pushed the unwary onto the train tracks, with fatal results.

Both California Democrats and Texas Republicans should want to make common cause to help these unfortunate Americans. For too long, however, housing advocates have used their plight as an argument for more subsidized housing — on the premise that this would provide the solution.

Starting with the George W. Bush administration and continuing through the Obama and Trump years, the federal “Housing First” program operated on the premise that getting the homeless off the streets into their own apartments should get top priority — and that, once housed, the formerly homeless could make their own way.

But using the street homeless as poster persons for subsidized housing generally overlooks the extent to which they are troubled by mental illness or substance abuse, rather than housing market failure and high rents alone. A Los Angeles Times review of that city’s 2019  “point in time” street survey of the homeless found that some “76 percent of individuals living outside on the streets reported being, or were observed to be, affected by mental illness, substance abuse, poor health or a physical disability.”

Residents of big cities will not be surprised — but would be dismayed — by the magnitude of the problem. There are a reported 69,000 street homeless in Los Angeles, at least 12,000 in Seattle, 10,000 in San Jose, Calif., 7,800 in San Francisco, and 7,600 in San Diego. (New York tops the list with 77,000 — although most of those are in the city’s often-squalid shelters and include many single mothers and children in family shelters.)

The street homeless, especially, need help that must go beyond housing, to include treatment of the sort that long-shuttered state psychiatric hospitals once offered, however ineffectively. Treatment plus housing are the goals of Republican-backed legislation that languished in the last Congress but deserves a hearing and Democratic consideration.

The proposed “Housing PLUS Act”  by Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) builds on an October 2020 report issued by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which found that Housing First had not stemmed the surge in street homelessness. That report included data that, despite increased homeless housing, “unsheltered homelessness increased 20.5 percent from 175,399 in 2014 to 211,293 in 2019. … Despite significant increases in funding and beds, overall homelessness has been increasing in the United States.”

In the wake of the pandemic, cities more than ever need the will and the resources to get to the roots of street homelessness.

The Barr legislation would not end homeless housing spending but would lift existing constraints on augmenting it with so-called “wraparound services” — whether treatment for addiction or schizophrenia or both, which are not uncommon in tent cities. This would enable federal support for so-called “supportive housing,” which combines an inside bed with treatment, rather than operating on the premise that, once housed, the homeless will be able to make their own way without further help.

This should not be taken to mean that addressing street homelessness is primarily, or only, a matter of federal funding. There was a time when states spent heavily on psychiatric beds; in the 1950s, California had some 55,000 such places. Today, it has only around 5,000. Similar declines occurred in every state thanks to  “deinstitutionalization” — sadly followed by few replacement community facilities.

Medicaid policy made the matter worse by barring support for any large psychiatric hospital. Washington did not want to fill the funding gap being created by the states. The tragic result is visible on our streets.

Localities must do their own part. Underutilized post-pandemic big-city office buildings and hotels could be converted to supportive housing, if local zoning is adjusted. Public order policing could be invoked to clear the streets and sidewalks. Political will, as well as funding, matters.

There is at least some reason to believe such bipartisan will could be mustered. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, seen by some as a potential Democratic presidential candidate, has set a modest but seemingly achievable goal of reducing street homelessness by 2 percent by 2024, saying, “Californians demand accountability and results, not settling for the status quo.” Newsom has pushed for hotel conversions to house the homeless — and less restrictive federal funding could help such efforts.

The fact that Republicans from red states are even taking an interest in street homelessness should be taken by Democrats as an important starting point for bipartisanship. Tent cities dot D.C. not far from the Capitol — and relocating and assisting their unfortunate residents would be a sign that our politics can both work and make a positive difference.

Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags addiction treatment Andy Barr Homelessness Housing First

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