The Trouble With the Simple Solution to Homelessness

I recently read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot for a book club and was struck by the section of the novel that suggests that the contemporary meaning of the word “homeless” was invented in the 1980s. “There were more people living on the street, plus a new term for them: the homeless,” Eugenides writes.

ThinkProgress, in an essay titled “It Would Actually Be Very Simple to End Homelessness Forever,” backs up the idea that today’s level of homelessness is a phenomenon that only developed in the past few decades:

Someone like Kirk likely wouldn’t have experienced such a long bout of homelessness in the decades leading up to the 1980s. But since then, thanks to a series of events but most notably the gutting of affordable housing, the country has experienced mass homelessness not seen since the Great Depression. More than 600,000 Americans don’t have a home to sleep in on any given night, with over 100,000 chronically dealing with the problem.

Kirk, in this case, is the subject of ThinkProgress’s piece; a healthy, educated man — he has both a Bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary prelaw and a paralegal certification — who wants both a steady job and a home. He is consistently unable to find both.

“He has 12,000 pages with 36 sent applications per page in his email inbox,” journalist Bryce Covert writes, but Kirk is only able to find seasonal positions at places like Walmart. Without money, he can’t get an apartment, so he sleeps in a park.

ThinkProgress’s “actually very simple” solution to ending homelessness is to give people homes — no surprise there — but they acknowledge that it’s a bit harder than it looks. One option they suggest is the solution proposed by the Bipartisan Policy Center in which homeless people receive cash vouchers to spend on rent:

[The Bipartisan Policy Center] recommended giving rental assistance to everyone whose income is at or below 30 percent of area median income (AMI), or between $13,650 for a single person to $19,500 for a family of four, through a reformed voucher program. At a cost of $22.5 billion, the report notes, “It could, in effect, end homelessness for the vast majority of those experiencing it,” given that nearly all homeless households fall into the category of earning at or below 30 percent of AMI. [Nan] Roman, who served on the commission, noted, “It would basically solve homelessness.”

The trouble with the cash vouchers, of course, is that they only work if there are enough apartments or homes that fall into both the available and affordable categories. Kirk, who lives in Seattle, might have difficulty finding a place to live even if he had a voucher to help him pay for it. The city is busy chopping up its buildings into microapartments, after all, but they’re also pricing them for the young urban professional market. The Bay Area isn’t any better, and neither is New York; in fact, I’d argue that no vibrant, urban area is experiencing an excess of apartments right now.

So that means the solution might also include building more homes, as ThinkProgress duly notes:

Another plan would call upon an existing mechanism: the National Housing Trust Fund. Congress created it in 2008 to build affordable housing across the country. “It was never funded, so the mechanism exits, but we never put any money into it,” [Rachel] Myers explained. But if funded, “it could create upward of 1 million affordable homes over 10 years.”

A fund that was never funded. But it could be, someday!

The other solutions include special housing opportunities for veterans as well as assistance with “rehoming costs,” or the combination of first and last month’s rent plus security deposit that makes it so hard for people on low incomes to secure decent apartments.

And yes, when you look at all the solutions together it would, actually, be very simple to end homelessness.

It’s when you look at the logistical problems of each individual solution that you realize it isn’t that simple at all. To end homelessness, you need homes. To build homes, you need money, space, and time. You also need systems like the voucher system or the rehoming cost system, which also require money, both in the funds that are given to homeless individuals and the cost of running the program itself.

You need solutions for people like Kirk, who are able-bodied, educated, and employable, as well as solutions for people who might be unable to work due to disabilities, lack of education and training, caretaking responsibilities, or other reasons. You also, ideally, need enough available jobs for Kirk and all the people like him to find work and earn a living wage.

On the one hand, it’s “give people homes!” On the other hand, it’s “first you must invent the universe.”

However, there is hope:

In 2010, [the government] launched Opening Doors, what it says is “the nation’s first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness.” The goal is to end homelessness among veterans by 2015, chronic homelessness by 2016, and to end it for children, youth, and families by 2020. Progress is already visible on the first goal, although it’s not clear if it will be met. Since the beginning of Opening Doors, veteran homelessness has fallen 33 percent and the number of veterans sleeping on the street has fallen by nearly 40 percent.

Some cities that are participating in the program have made even more progress. Last year, Phoenix and Salt Lake City both announced they had ended chronic homelessness among veterans. Both focused on a housing first approach, coupled with resources like job training and health care. Zeilinger said that New Orleans will end veteran homelessness before the federal deadline and is also on track to end chronic homelessness soon after that.

By 2020. In six years.

I am willing myself to be optimistic. Maybe by The Marriage Plot’s 10th anniversary in 2021, the characters’ observations about the homeless will seem dated.

Photo credit: Tanya

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.