In Los Angeles, a neighborhood has gone to war with itself over a tent city in a park. In Philadelphia, the transit authority said that it would close a subway station—cutting off an entire neighborhood from transit service—because of disorder related to the local homeless population.
Both of these stories, from the past month, are local tragedies. Taken together, they underline the way America’s homelessness crisis has taken on a depressing air of inevitability—not something that can be solved or even directly addressed, but an immovable fact around which we do our best to adjust everything else. We are battling what Rosanne Haggerty, who received a MacArthur “genius grant” for her work developing housing for the homeless, calls “the myth of the overwhelming nature of the problem.”
This state of affairs is nothing new—L.A. has consigned an entire neighborhood to the street homeless—but what is new is the sense that we might, finally, be able to do something about it. For the first time in a decade, Democrats control the executive and both houses of Congress. The American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed this month contains a big investment in fighting homelessness. In addition to $21.6 billion for low-income renters, it contains $5 billion for housing vouchers specifically targeted at at-risk renters and $5 billion in HOME grants, which cities and counties can use to invest in permanent supportive housing to prevent homelessness. It’s a lot. (The entire annual outlay for federal Section 8 housing vouchers, for comparison’s sake, is $22 billion.)
Sarah Saadian, a vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told me she is optimistic this infusion signals the administration’s intent to follow through on campaign promises related to homelessness—to treat affordable housing as an investment in infrastructure, and transform the housing voucher program into an entitlement. “This is the best opportunity we have to make a big dent in homelessness,” she said.
In 2021, not only is the large number of people living on the street a moral disgrace, it’s a problem we know how to solve. Homelessness is a housing problem, and getting people housing takes money.
Unlike gentrification, conspiracy theories, and other present-day phenomena that are in fact long-standing features of American life, modern homelessness has few analogues in our cities’ recent past. A 1976 history of low-income housing in America made the impossibly foreign observation that “the housing industry trades on the knowledge that no Western country can politically afford to permit its citizens to sleep in the streets.” The word homeless, in those days, was used mainly to describe persons displaced by war or natural disasters.
To diagnose the homelessness in their own towns, people have tried to convince themselves of many things: It’s the weather. Drugs. Social estrangement. Low wages. State disinvestment in psychiatric care, in caring for people with disabilities, in services for veterans. Ronald Reagan, infamously, said homelessness is a choice. There are at least half a million homeless people in the United States, so there is room for all those things to be a little bit true. But most of all, homelessness is about a shortage of low-income housing.
As Conor Dougherty writes in his book Golden Gates, urban redevelopment programs in the 1960s and ’70s “destroyed thousands of rooming houses and ‘cage hotels’ with single-occupant dwellings and shared bathrooms, removing a crucial support of last-resort shelter.” New York lost 109,000 single room occupancy units between 1971 and 1987. Roughly half the SRO stocks of Los Angeles and Seattle vanished in the same time frame. Chicago lost 80 percent of its SROs between 1960 and 1980, a decline of about 70,000 units. Prior to that, a man could work a little, drink a lot, and still afford a room to lay his head. Afterward, not so much.
Though homelessness has dropped by double digits in the United States since 2007, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data published last week, it has increased by double digits in four places: New York, California, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. Those places are not linked by their stingy safety nets, high rates of poverty, or substance abuse issues. They all just have really expensive housing.
That homelessness is connected to high housing costs may pass for counterintuitive because the popular image of homelessness is so closely linked to the chronically homeless—adult men, many of whom have a disability, who have spent years living on the street. These people need help, the thinking goes, not just a house.
But it’s hard for the web of city agencies, nonprofits, and religious institutions to focus on treating and helping those people when their ranks are swollen by the people sometimes called the “transitionally homeless”—Americans, often older, sometimes working, sometimes with cars, who would be ready and able to hold down an apartment if they could just get a little help with the rent.
New York City, the homelessness capital of the country, epitomizes this mismatch. Subway homelessness is the flashpoint: Transit workers often complain about harassment and attacks (and, more recently, getting the coronavirus) from homeless people in trains. Gov. Andrew Cuomo went so far as to shut the whole system down every night for the first sustained period since it opened more than a century ago, to clear people from the cars under the guise of cleaning them. According to the city’s point-in-time counts, there are 2,000 people who sleep in the subway each winter. You could rent each of them a decent apartment for a total of $50 million a year. Pandemic-era cleaning of the subway will likely end up costing 10 times that much.
But these avatars of the homeless crisis are not representative. More than two-thirds of the city’s homeless population consists of families with children; a third of those include at least one working adult. Their average length of stay in city facilities is more than a year. The many reasons they end up in a shelter or city-rented hotel room may include job loss, eviction, or domestic violence. But there is one clear way they get out: Only 1 percent of families who exit the shelter system for subsidized housing are back within a year.
This suggests that an ample system of housing subsidy might put tens of thousands of people back in homes virtually overnight. But New York state’s state shelter allowance for a mom and two kids maxes out at $400 a month. There are 60,000 homeless people in New York City’s shelter system, and fewer than 500 households a year receive Section 8 vouchers.
That’s an issue Democrats could fix right now by expanding the housing choice voucher program, which only covers one in four low-income renters in this country. The Section 8 waitlist has been closed in New York City since 2009. In Los Angeles, the waitlist was closed for 13 years before it reopened (and then closed again) in 2017. Even lower-cost cities like Houston go years without taking new applicants.
Guaranteed housing assistance wouldn’t just help families who have just lost their homes. After Hurricane Katrina, Martha Kegel, the director of the anti-homelessness nonprofit UNITY of Greater New Orleans, fought for an expansion of vouchers for people who were homeless and disabled. The city got 1,000 of them, which was instrumental in helping reduce the post-Katrina homeless population by 90 percent. The conventional wisdom that homeless people are “hard to reach” is linked to the low-quality support services on offer, she argued. “Almost no one will turn down an apartment.” Demand-side subsidy doesn’t solve every problem, but it does encourage landlords and owners to bring new affordable units into the market, she added.
The emphasis on housing vouchers is part of a philosophical sea change in homelessness policy over the past few decades, from “housing ready”—you have to solve a person’s problems before they’re ready for housing—to “housing first”: Get a roof over someone’s head and the rest will be easier to work out. It’s much easier to provide “wraparound services” to the homeless people who need help if they have a fixed address. (This is one of many miracles associated with providing proper housing; another is alleviating the overcrowded dwellings that have proved so deadly during the pandemic.)
Like poverty, homelessness has many self-reinforcing costs: injury, theft, jail time for minor offenses like public urination or having an open container. Health care costs fall so much when people have shelter that the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago started renting units for the most frequent visitors to its emergency room.
Take this logic up a level and you can see how American homelessness is not just a moral disgrace, but an expensive one too. City, state, and federal balance sheets may not look good when they pour money into affordable housing, but the savings are spread across the economy: Fewer people on the street saves time and money for doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and the entire criminal justice system. All it takes is a roof over your head.