It’s a cold February morning and dry winds cut into my skin as I walk out of my university’s lecture hall. The day is overcast and dreary, but my mind races with excitement as I walk alongside pristine mounds of snow and ruminate on this morning’s lesson on the paradigm-shifting Housing First model tackling homelessness in our communities.
I’m stopped dead in my tracks when I hear a small voice call out from behind me: “Miss, do you have any change you can spare?” I look around me. I’ve walked to the downtown corridor where the homeless folks lining the street outnumber the trendy coffee shops— a true feat in our day and age. The sobering reality hits me with full force like an uppercut to the gut. Where is Housing First?
Since this moment many years ago, I’ve continued grappling with the Housing First approach as homelessness has grown in size and scope. The question still burns in my mind: Why is there mass homelessness when we have Housing First? Is Housing First failing homeless people?
The answer I’ve come to is no— it is not Housing First but our unwillingness to act on housing that is failing us.
Housing First was created in the 1990s on the hypothesis that recovery is best facilitated by quickly moving people into housing before providing supports and services. Housing is the essential precursor for addressing the adversities that caused the person’s homelessness in the first place. Housing First shined a light on how our puritan and merit-based ideologies created more barriers than opportunities for people to escape homelessness, powerfully shifting away from requiring people to demonstrate housing-ready behavior before moving into housing.
As an example, Housing First says that people struggling with co-occurring homelessness and addiction should receive housing, not as a reward but a pre-requisite to recovery, as safe, dry housing is a favorable alternative to recovering on the streets or emergency shelters where drug use runs rampant. Likewise, Housing First dictates that housing improves mental illness symptoms and pushes people toward independence more effectively than treating their illness while they’re on the streets.
Housing First as an approach is sensible; housing is a social determinant of health that inevitably provides stability and security to improve housing and health outcomes.
It’s no secret that we have not vanquished homelessness— it is visible in our communities. The crude number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in the United States has decreased by nearly 100,000 over the last decade (down from nearly 650,000), indicating minor progress in our efforts to end homelessness.
However, homelessness as a social condition has evolved from a problem of depth to a problem of breadth. By this, I mean that homelessness is no longer a chronic problem affecting a small group dominantly composed of men, as it was in the 1990s when Housing First was conceived. Homelessness is now a pervasive social issue of poverty and oppression that straddles all groups of society.
Homelessness is not a recent phenomenon, but mass homelessness is. The structural changes to our economic and policy landscape explain this shift:
Divestment of funding for social services had its grand debut in the 1980s during Reagan’s presidency. Reagan famously privatized state-owned enterprises, divested social service spending on Social Security, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and federal education, and relied on the “invisible hand” to regulate housing supply and development.
Prior to Reagan, homelessness appeared with economic busts and disappeared with booms. Following his presidency, homelessness changed from “a cyclical phenomenon… into a permanent urban fixture”. The cuts to social services have never recovered. Nearly all experts agree: the mass homelessness we see today stems from fatal Neoliberal economic policies of Reagan’s days.
Ironically but unsurprisingly, the exacerbation of wealth inequality also began in the Neoliberal period when progressive tax reforms, such as Social Security, and unionization became demonized in the public eye – two policy tools keeping low- and middle-income growth strong.
The 1980s marked the end of shared prosperity. Wealth started concentrating in the hands of the top earners, with their wealth now growing at more than 2.5 times the speed of the middle-class’. Nowadays, three men — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett — have more combined wealth than the poorest half of Americans.
Income inequality is juxtaposed alongside rising costs of living that significantly supersede inflation, creating a deadly cocktail for widespread poverty. This is remarkable as unemployment is at a record low in the country and the economy is growing steadily. Yet, living in the United States has never been more expensive. In the last three years alone, the cost of living has risen 14%, and the salary needed to live comfortably and abide by the 50-30-20 rule has jumped $10,000-30,000 since 2017 in nearly every American city.
Home ownership is the foundation of the American dream, and for good reason. It is the greatest engine of wealth accumulation, accounting for two-thirds of the average family’s equity. However, securing a home is a long-lost dream for many as the cost of purchasing a home has risen exorbitantly. It has more than doubled in many major American cities in just one decade.
Housing is considered affordable when less than 30% of a household’s pre-tax income is spent on rent or mortgage payments. In the most expensive states in the country, such as Washington D.C. and California, renters need to make more than $100,000 to afford housing.
Housing is in crisis in the country. An adequate supply of safe, affordable housing is key to preventing homelessness. After all, you need housing to do housing first.
The face of homelessness has changed dramatically in recent years as more people trickle into emergency shelters due to poverty. At the shelter in my city, many people are capable of independent living and have an income either through a full-time position, a part-time job, or welfare support. They’re not in shelters because of their acuity. They’re in shelters because there are no affordable housing options.
There are two issues at hand. First, shelter and housing programs aren’t equipped to deal with the volume of middle-class people requiring housing assistance. Nearly all shelters operated at capacity before poverty started touching the middle-class. And, affordable housing wait-lists were already as high as 5-10 years. But with bleak prospectives for affordable housing without a vision for a national housing strategy, this trend is likely to exacerbate, not reverse.
This leads to the second issue. The migration of lower acuity people into shelter and housing services inevitably displaces higher acuity people on service lists. Even though we operate in the paradigm of Housing First, the reality is that many shelters and affordable housing units have long wait-lists and the ability to restrict people from accessing their services on the basis of their behavior. When housing becomes a competition, lower acuity people will always win. This exacerbates the very problem that Housing First aimed to flip on its head in the first place.
When I look back on my question as to why Housing First has not solved homelessness, the answer is clear. Housing First cannot compete against:
Housing First is a compelling, evidence-based and rights-based approach to support recovery for people facing experiencing chronic homelessness. But the landscape of homelessness has changed so dramatically that the rallying cry for Housing First can no longer be “we need to move people into housing to solve homelessness”, but “we need housing to solve homelessness”.
This is where we need to act if we want to live in a world where housing comes first.
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