Written by Michele Steeb, CEO, Saint John’s Program for Real Change
Dear Madam or Mr. President-To-Be:
Homelessness is one of the least talked-about problems in your campaigns so far. By every credible report, homelessness is ripping holes in the fabric of the country you’re about to lead. The good news is that it can be practically managed if we stop trying to address it with a one-size-fits-all solution.
National data shows the number of people who are homeless dropped by 2.3% in 2015 over 2014, but if you were to poll the residents and businesses in Sacramento and most other urban areas across the Country, they would tell you the problem has reached crisis levels. Everyone is talking about this issue, from small business owners to local electeds, from educators to community leaders.
Everyone but you, that is.
Estimates are that an individual who is homeless costs society between $40,000-$150,000 annually, translating to billions of dollars being spent annually. Nearly one-third of all visits to the emergency room are made by people struggling with chronic homelessness. Fifty-four percent of preschoolers in homeless families had a major developmental delay– compared to 16 percent of their housed peers. Most concerning, however, is the loss of future productivity of someone who is caught up in the vicious cycle of homelessness and dependence.
Many who have become homeless tend to isolate due to depression and abuse. It is difficult for them to see outside of themselves and their misery — to understand that their pasts need not dictate their futures.
For the past eight+ years, the approach to solving homelessness— Housing First— is HUD’s “one size fits all” solution that addresses the growing problem by, in essence, hiding it. It places people in life-long, permanent housing immediately, without a requirement of sobriety, counseling or any engagement in life-improvement services. It is completely up to the recipients of this life-long housing to decide whether they need to change their lifestyles and address any of the issues that led to their homelessness — including addiction to drugs or alcohol, domestic violence, limited education, lack of job skills and training, mental health, and more.
Very few would argue that the problem of homelessness has improved during this period of time. Providing no-strings-attached housing, especially to single-mother-led families facing multiple barriers, is often counter-productive because it includes neither the tools nor the incentive to change. It does nothing more than apply political duct tape, appearing to make the problem of homelessness go away because, after all, the people are no longer homeless. But the impacts on their children, as well as the societal impacts, remain.
The breadth of people struggling with homelessness is just as broad as the breadth of people struggling with the challenges of every-day life. The misguided notion that Housing First will work for every homeless person is no more effective than saying every child struggling in school needs a history tutor, regardless of the subject in which they are struggling.
Stationing people in permanent housing creates a false sense of progress by reducing the most visible signs of homelessness (i.e., people on the streets). The reality is that not all of the people who are homeless come directly from the streets. The majority of homeless families come from temporary couches in a relative’s or friend’s home — which means, according to the Federal Government, these families are not homeless. Ridiculous but true.
Life-long, permanent housing is a temptation and an easy choice for most who find themselves homeless. However, for many, it is a quick fix, just as duct tape is used to hold your eyeglasses together until you can get them repaired or replaced.
Consider the following statistics from Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a program designed for the most rapidly growing segment of the homeless population– single-mother-led families:
- 76 percent of our clients are victims of domestic violence;
- 74 percent suffer from drug and alcohol addiction;
- 60 percent have criminal records;
- 54 percent struggle with mental illness;
- 40 percent lack High School diplomas or General Educational Development (GED) degrees;
- 40 percent have children in the foster care system;
- 35 percent became parents when they were teens; and
- 100 percent are attempting to raise children while dealing with these issues
Yes, there are many overlaps in these statistics, which only reinforces the obvious fact that if these individuals were to be provided with permanent housing — without giving them the tools to make permanent changes in their lives — we would have accomplished nothing. This is why, in addition to safe, supportive communal housing, we put our clients through a comprehensive year-long program that provides the tools necessary for permanent change: mental health services, alcohol and drug counseling, parenting and budgeting classes, job training and life skills.
Saint John’s employs a “Person First” approach, versus Housing First. In short, our clients earn their housing — and it’s up to them to continue earning it. As we tell them often: We can’t be working harder on you than you are working on yourself.
It calls to mind a proverb that is frequently quoted — but in government, rarely heeded: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Proponents argue that Housing First saves a great deal of money. This argument takes into account the short-term savings achieved by subsidizing the rent for someone who has become homeless. Indeed, rental subsidies are economical compared to the costs associated with curing that which led the person to homelessness in the first place.
Under HUD’s one-size-fits-all approach, we are getting what we are paying for…
For several years now, HUD has delayed the release of a comprehensive national study on its Housing First outcomes across the various segments of folks who find themselves homeless. What is HUD afraid of? As our next President, you will need this data to be able to effectively address this growing crisis.
This data needs to include both the short- and long-term outcomes across all population segments of those who find themselves homeless. Until then, there is no case that Housing First is the “magic bullet”… it is a child’s version of an intelligent solution.
Four days after your election on November 8, National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week will begin. I put it to you, Madam or Mr. President-To-Be: Can our country do better than this? If not, we are certain to run out of fish.