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To end homelessness, follow the science

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A familiar mantra during the coronavirus pandemic is for policy and practice to follow the science. The same could be said for the science to end homelessness. 

Ever improving data collection, measurement and experimental assessments provide unprecedented evidence for the Housing First approach. The bipartisan goal of ending homelessness — adopted under President George W. Bush and extended under President Barack Obama — has led to a continuous decline in the unhoused population, especially homeless veterans, from 2007 to 2016, with an uptick in unsheltered homelessness since then.  

Yet two weeks before the 2020 election, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which President Donald Trump once proposed to eliminate, has released a new strategic plan. The “Expanding the Toolbox: The Whole-of-Government Response to Homelessness” plan purports to address what it deems a failure of its predecessor, Opening Doors, namely, the rise in unsheltered homelessness, despite increasing permanent supported housing units and rising public expenditures. 

The plan calls for moving beyond subsidized housing assistance that is not providing a “return on the federal investment” in order to optimize “self-sufficiency,” measured as leaving, not entering subsidized housing. To do so, “expanding the toolbox” means to break down policy silos that separate housing from individualized services like “trauma-informed care,” recovery treatment and workforce development.  

The plan traces “the root causes” of homelessness to the life course events that precipitate homelessness, like domestic violence, aging out of foster care or prison release, and proposes interventions to transform individuals while providing conditional transitional housing. It calls for localized solutions that are flexible enough for taxpayers to subsidize specialized nonprofit, faith-based and private sector programs for ex-offenders, substance users, veterans and other subgroups at risk. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson has repeatedly called to impose work requirements on residents of subsidized housing, referring to it as “Welfare Reform 2.0,” and he is now prescribing participation requirements in trauma-informed care for the homeless. The plan tackles the shortage of affordable housing exclusively through deregulation.

This new emphasis turns away from the evidence-based policy that has guided HUD in previous administrations called Housing First. Instead, the administration should follow the science and data about what works best to end homelessness, then craft policy. Unlike earlier step-by-step, conditional models to prove oneself worthy of permanent housing, Housing First rapidly houses homeless people, especially those with disabilities, while offering, though not requiring, services to reduce harm. In practice, case management is almost always provided and once stabilized, residents begin to work on their problems. It seems unrealistic to insist on work when half the people in sheltered households and two-thirds of sheltered veterans report a disability. Experience has shown that the new plan’s disciplinary insistence on enrolling in “rehab,” mental health treatment or work can be counter-productive, driving some of the chronically homeless back to the streets to maintain their autonomy. More permanent supportive housing has helped stabilize this group, while rapid rehousing programs prevent entering the shelter system. Services are great, but they will not prevent more people from tumbling into homelessness when rents rise or no affordable housing is locally available.

Randomized control trials have demonstrated that long-term housing subsidies are the most successful approach to attaining stable housing and improved health for families compared to the alternatives of emergency shelters, transitional housing or even rapid rehousing with short-term vouchers. A recent study found that the proportion of families who initially received long-term subsidies in December 2013 that were also receiving housing assistance in March 2019 declined by 20 percentage points, but for the other intervention groups, the proportion of families receiving housing assistance increased. Self-sufficiency for people with low incomes is elusive, and it is no surprise that there is little turnover in any kind of scarce federally subsidized housing.  

Existing evidence has led 10 national associations representing the homeless to oppose the new plan. They called the document “neither strategic nor a plan,” and maintained it has no proven measures to reduce or end homelessness. 

Like the widely discredited Council of Economic Advisors’ 2019 report,“The State of Homelessness in America,” which blamed “decades of misguided and faulty policies” for the recent rise in numbers, the new plan “continues to leverage data that has been widely disproven by experts.” Opponents say the plan cherry-picks the data and misrepresents the rise in permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing beds and housing vouchers as “homelessness” instead of its solution. It uses faulty reasoning to claim that Housing First, a reaction to homelessness, rather than rising housing costs relative to income, caused the recent uptick in unsheltered homelessness. It also neglects that veteran homelessness fell so much precisely because of Housing First policies.  

Opponents are also skeptical of the plan’s professed “renewed focus on racial disparities” and its decriminalization position. It is hard to take such vague commitments seriously after Carson denounced residential desegregation policies as “failed socialist experiments” and suspended HUD’s 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. He serves a president who promised suburbanites they will not be “bothered or financially hurt” with neighboring low-income housing. In this way, the administration broke with earlier bipartisanship in homelessness policy and unfortunately politicized it.  

The concentration of unsheltered homelessness in major cities of the Northeast and West Coast, especially in California, has less to do with being “Democrat run” or having lenient police, immigrants or “right-to-shelter laws, and more to do with supply and demand. Even if zoning, permitting and code regulations are slowing new construction, as the plan argues, escalating rents and rising unemployment make homelessness worse. People want to live in blue states because that’s where the opportunities are, and builders cannot keep up. Rents skyrocket.  

Deregulation alone will not provide the deep subsidies needed to produce and pay rent in units affordable to the very low-income households at most risk of homelessness. The latest Trump budget again proposed deep cuts in rental assistance. One can only hope that the plan will in fact fulfill its promised “moral help every single citizen to obtain safe and stable housing.”

Hilary Silver is a professor of Sociology, International Affairs and Public Policy at the George Washington University and professor Emerita at Brown University. Follow her on Twitter @hilary_silver.

Tags Barack Obama Ben Carson Ben Carson; Housing and Urban Development Donald Trump homeless homeless veterans Homelessness Housing First housing policy HUD Rent Control subsidized housing Welfare reform

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