The Department of Housing and Urban Development released new data last week showing that homelessness may have inched up slightly, based on an annual count of homeless people during one night in January. Although not perfect, this is the best measurement we have to get an overall picture of homelessness and how it changes year to year.
This is the first year since 2010 that we saw an increase, and experts say it’s mostly driven by surging housing prices in West Coast cities. Clearly, our economic recovery hasn’t affected everyone the same.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson had his own takeaway from the data, telling NPR last week, “We just need to move a little bit away from the concept that only the government can solve this problem by throwing more money at it.”
He’s not wrong. It’s totally fair to say that we shouldn’t accept government policies that simply throw money at problems hoping that will solve them. But this is a straw-man argument — nobody wants to just throw money at a problem blindly.
And thankfully, we don’t have to. We already have a decent sense of what does work to reduce homelessness, thanks to years of careful, evidence-based policymaking.
That includes a housing-first approach that focuses on getting people in stable housing first and then supports those in need of mental health services or treatment for drug addiction — sometimes even in permanent arrangements. It also includes providing help, especially in the form of vouchers, to low-income families that can’t afford housing prices. And it includes focusing on helping sub-populations in need of assistance, particularly veterans.
Each of these policies has empirically shown to improve the lives of homeless people. And while such interventions require government spending, they also save money by keeping homeless people out of more costly institutions such as hospitals and prisons. What’s more, cities are implementing these policies not solely through public money (although funding from the government is essential) but through integrated strategies that incorporate nonprofits, local businesses and community groups.
Unfortunately, not all conservatives have embraced such an approach. In fact, Republicans in Washington proposed quite the opposite: Both the White House and the House Appropriations Committee outlined budget proposals that would eliminate the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the small but essential agency that coordinates efforts against homelessness among more than a dozen federal agencies. And just last week, the Department of Veteran Affairs scratched plans to shift money away from a major program that benefits homeless veterans — but only after igniting intense public backlash.
And what’s the alternative policy to these programs and spending that conservatives want to cut? You won’t find many detailed answers. Conservatives often deflect, stressing that states and local governments should handle the problem.
That’s a shame, not least of all because it totally disregards the actual, on-the-ground progress led by local coalitions and funded with both federal and state money in the past decade.
In the end, we never will “solve” homelessness, as Carson yearns to do. Affordable housing is an extremely complicated — and essentially local — issue with little consensus on how to fix it. Economists still fiercely debate whether building more housing in cities at market rates will ease or worsen rents. Meanwhile, there will always be people who face tough times and slip through the cracks in our economy. And there will always be illicit drugs and mental illness.
The best option for governments is to design the best safety net they can for those who cannot provide for themselves. This is what policymakers have been doing for decades, and the more data they have, the more efficient it will be.
If Carson and his fellow Republicans seriously want to tackle the disturbing increase in homelessness in the United States, start with what we know. Don’t trash the system we have in place and attempt to reinvent the wheel.