Comment: Homelessness was on decline, until we changed course

Housing First was reducing homelessness until the Trump years. We need to resume those programs.

By Noah Smith / Bloomberg Opinion

The West Coast had a homelessness crisis even before the pandemic. Now it’s worse. Fortunately, the solution is already well-established: Just give homeless people a place to live. Republican President George W. Bush helped prove the effectiveness of that simple idea; what we need is a return to his successful policies.

Living in San Francisco, as I do, makes you acutely aware of the problem of homelessness. There are tent cities not just under overpasses, but along whole stretches of the street, surrounded by the sad litter of indigent people’s meager possessions. Men and women slumber in doorways under piles of filthy blankets. Needles litter public parks and people afflicted by drug withdrawal or mental illness bellow as they stagger down the street.

It’s unconscionable that so many citizens should have to wallow in a level of squalor more befitting the Middle Ages in a region that generates so much wealth. And the crisis isn’t just bad for the homeless themselves; it gives cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles a dirty, unsafe reputation and makes simply walking down the street an unpleasant experience for many.

Homelessness in America was decreasing until around 2016; then that trend reversed. Chronic homelessness rose by 15 percent just from 2019 to 2020, while unsheltered homelessness rose 7 percent. The West Coast has borne the brunt of this increase. Contrary to the popular image of vagrants drifting around the country looking for welcoming cities, most of the homeless people in San Francisco became homeless while living in the city; only 8 percent came from out of state.

That strongly suggests rising rents are behind the increase in homelessness since 2016, especially in pricey West Coast cities that have refused to build sufficient housing to accommodate population growth. Now covid-19 has added another layer to the problem; some of the low-income people who fall through the cracks in government relief programs and can’t pay their rent will have nowhere to go but out into the streets.

The tragedy is that we already know how to reduce homelessness. Eight years ago, people who paid attention to the issue were celebrating a dramatic multi-year decline in the number of Americans living on the streets. From 2005 to 2007, chronic homelessness dropped by 30 percent; and then, despite the Great Recession, fell by another 15 percent by 2013. The reason was a policy called “Housing First,” implemented by the George W. Bush administration and carried on during Barack Obama’s first term. But though the price tag was modest — less than $2 billion a year — it was undermined by austerity and ultimately died under President Donald Trump.

Housing First was not rocket science. It’s based on the incredibly basic idea that homelessness — as the name implies — is about the lack of a home. Instead of requiring people to sober up or meet other difficult requirements before getting a government-funded living space, Housing First gives people the security of a roof over their heads and then works on getting them sober and into a job. It’s a recognition that shelter is a prerequisite for self-improvement. Adding to the blunt fact of homelessness’ decline from 2005-13, there’s plenty of research showing that Housing First is an effective policy. Nor is it a case of government needing to spend more; the money saved on social services largely offsets the additional amount spent on housing, since it’s much easier to take care of people when they’re not on the street.

In the wake of the pandemic, some states and cities are making valiant efforts to fight homelessness. California’s Project Homekey, a plan to convert motels and other properties into shelters, is already having positive effects. This is no coincidence; the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is being advised by Philip Mangano, who devised Bush’s successful policy against homelessness.

But what’s really needed is federal money. Left to their own devices, states and cities will be too cash-strapped to buy housing for the homeless, and some will be worried (rationally or irrationally) that providing housing would simply draw in more indigent people from elsewhere. Fortunately, the federal government provided such funds under the CARES Act of 2020 and Biden’s relief bill this year. But the programs are temporary, and like Project Homekey, they’re focused on short-term shelter; some states aren’t even taking the money.

The federal government needs to attack not just the expected surge in homelessness from covid, but the longer-term rise that began five years ago. A return to the Bush policy of Housing First would cost little, but would have huge effects on improving the quality and appeal of America’s cities, as well as on relieving the suffering of society’s least fortunate.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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