Every time there is an article in the newspaper about homelessness, inevitably there are a few people who leave comments on the article like the ones below:
“There is no easy fix to the growing homeless problem. These people have become homeless of their own volition. They have chosen a life of escapism through drugs that has left them chained by addiction into a constant search for the next high. This isn’t homelessness due to poverty, these are people who are ill with addiction.” – CarbonNative
“Feeding street bums is the same as feeding pigeons, you only attract more.” –wallst
CarbonNative and wallst are ignorant of the true nature of the problem, of course. Unfortunately, they represent the opinion of many housed people in the community.
It would be wonderful if the problem of homelessness were so simple as these two believe. But homelessness is definitely one of society’s most complex afflictions.
It is a costly affliction as well. Homeless people cost taxpayers at least $37,000 to $50,000+ a year, per person, per year. They are a huge draw on emergency services, paramedics, emergency rooms, police, the justice system, corrections facilities, city maintenance services, parks and recreation and other taxpayer-funded services.
Just seeing so many of your fellow Americans suffering, and suffering horribly right in front of you is a difficult experience for everyone who isn’t a sociopath.
So, what do we do?
We should all know by now that the knee-jerk reaction of outlawing homelessness doesn’t work. It never has and never will. There is absolutely no way to abolish abject poverty and its effects through legislation aimed squarely at the poor.
Laws against loitering, sleeping in public, camping within city limits, public consumption, public urination accomplish nothing except to add to the cost of homelessness for all concerned.
There is a significant price tag attached to adjudicating these pointless tickets over and over again. Judges and courtrooms aren’t free. And assessing fines to people that can’t pay them is pointless. The same holds true for routing homeless people through a jail system that is already overflowing due to the continuing disaster that is the “War on Drugs.”
Just as there are never enough affordable homes and apartments, so too are there never enough cages.
Regardless of what some would have us believe, homeless people are just as human as any housed individual. Housed or unhoused, every human must somehow find sustenance. Every human must sleep. And yes, every human must relieve themselves somewhere. Unhoused people are equally as capable of vanishing from sight as housed people.
Punishing people for merely existing is not only pointlessly cruel, it is stupid. It wastes far more money than tolerance and investment in programs to get people off of the street.
Perhaps the most direct and effective program to assist homeless people is the housing voucher.
Housing vouchers are simply a financial agreement to provide rent and deposit money for a homeless person or family. After the voucher is secured, the search begins for a property manager or landlord willing to provide an adequate apartment for the homeless person or family’s needs. After securing an apartment, the person or family on the voucher is then required to follow up with employment counselors, drug treatment, psychiatric help, or whatever other assistance they need to stay housed.
A voucher is what saved my wife and myself from homelessness. I am writing this in the apartment that was secured for my wife and myself just over one year ago by the Social Services for Veteran Families organization.
The housing voucher is one of the methods of treating the problem of homelessness included in the “Housing First” approach.
The concept behind “Housing First” is simple: put homeless people into housing, and then focus on helping them with the issues that contributed to their homelessness.
Housing First saves lives, money, and improves the community for everyone. Instead of a $37-50 thousand-dollar annual price tag for every homeless person on the streets, people can be housed and helped by the “Housing First” approach for as little as $20,000 a person.
The problem in Utah is that assisting homeless people is not a popular consideration for Utah’s overwhelmingly conservative legislature. Getting into a good addiction program involves a waiting list that can be nine months to over a year. Getting psychiatric help involves a waiting list of over a year. Qualifying for section 8 housing assistance for disabled people can mean a wait of more than 5 years.
Meanwhile, most housing vouchers expire in 9 months, sometimes tossing people back into the cycle of homelessness once again.
But in many cases, with the assistance of the exceptional counselors at the Road Home organization, temporary housing vouchers lead to success in housing retention. Deputy Director of Housing for the Road Home, Jeniece Olsen, said the success rate hovers around 70% annually. This is measured by counting the number of families that return to the shelter within two years of exiting.
Director Olsen points to housing affordability as the greatest barrier to success. It surpasses addiction, mental illness, criminal records and disabilities. She said roughly 50% of renters in Salt Lake County are paying more than 50% of their income to rent. And that was the situation before the pandemic.
Meredith Vernick, director of Social Services for Veteran Families, reports that voucher programs in Salt Lake County help about 200 veteran households escape homelessness per year within the region. She said studies have shown the voucher programs have a success rate of over 80% in cases involving veteran placements.
I know from personal experience that even with acceptance into a voucher program, there are still significant barriers to finding an apartment.
Anybody who has tried to rent an apartment knows that it is something akin to applying for a high security clearance these days. Not only do property managers ask for verification of income and first and last month’s rent including deposit, but they are also doing checks on credit, criminal background, and eviction history.
How are homeless people supposed to clear those hurdles? How can poor people on the brink of homelessness compete for the ever-dwindling pool of affordable apartments if they must stand up to such extreme examination? Is it any wonder that homelessness is such a growing problem?
This is where organizations that work with homeless people really have their work cut out for them.
Here in Utah, The Road Home organization and the Social Services for Veteran Families really shine in the face of great adversity.
They have some of the most altruistic, selfless, and amazing people that I have ever met. All day, every day, they battle the stigma of homelessness. That and the prejudices of property owners to find people that will give homeless people a chance at a home.
There are challenges, of course. But helping homeless people can be a great experience for property managers. Taylor Wolf, property manager for Maple Leaf Property Management, has been accepting homeless vouchers for 20 years. Wolf describes it as a “very worthwhile practice because it gives those who have faced challenges another chance.”
Wolf not only helps homeless people herself, but she said she would “definitely recommend” the practice of helping homeless people to other property managers. She said it helps the community that they must all live and work in. While acknowledging there have been some bad experiences, Wolf said “it is our job as representatives for property owners to weed out those who may not be ready to live on their own” so as to provide the opportunity to more of those who are.
“I am personally interested in this program to help with the homeless population,” she said. “I believe there should be a lot more housing opportunities, job opportunities and especially mental health treatment efforts and awareness brought in to our communities.”
What Utah and our entire country desperately needs is:
- more property managers like Taylor
- a greater understanding among our political leaders of the fiscal benefits of the Housing First approach
- and a much greater focus on creating affordable housing
With the approaching fallout from this pandemic, especially the 30-plus million Americans who will be in danger of eviction after protections end in January, we’ve got to act now. Here are a few actions you can take:
- Contact your elected representatives
- Show up for a rally in support of homeless people
- Donate a few dollars to people who advocate for homeless people (like this website)
- Simply vote for a representative you think will make a difference
The COVID-19 pandemic will likely be mitigated soon with the advent of vaccines and better treatments. But unless we act now, the next pandemic could be mass homelessness, and it could be just as costly.