What have cities done to try to solve homelessness in the USA, what has worked, and what hasn’t, and what remains to be tried? I want to explore these questions.
Shelters vs Navigation Centers, Supportive Housing
There are different ways to view “solutions” to homelessness. We could say that the solution depends on what we perceive as the problem. If the problem is lack of shelter, then it is sufficient to provide shelter for individuals without shelter. But if the problem is lack of a home, then mere shelter is not sufficient, and people really need permanent housing. But that too is open to questions — we can then ask, what constitutes permanent housing. Some of the homeless feel at home living in a tent on the sidewalk, more so than they feel at home in a shelter which is closed to their access during the day, or where they are not permitted to bring their belongings in.
We could also say that the solution is dependent upon what is realistic and possible. Even some of those who are ardent advocates for the homeless and for housing for the homeless acknowledge that it’s not realistic for people to simply show up at the door of any city and demand free housing there.
It could be, however, that some people coming out of supportive housing will have to leave the city. The city’s biennial counts have shown that about one-third of San Francisco’s homeless population were transients before they arrived here.
“People don’t go to Beverly Hills and say, ‘Give me a free place to live,’ so why do we create the fiction that you can just come here and get housing?” said Shaw, head of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. “Perhaps it makes sense to compassionately, intelligently help them — but not for staying here. At least for some. The rest of the region should step up its efforts, too, and help in this.”
If it were determined that, in any given locale, it would it would not be politically, economically or in some other way feasible to provide certain forms of permanent housing to everyone who needed that and was unable to obtain it on their own, then this would not be a viable “solution” regardless of the need.
Looking at what has been done to try to solve the problem of homelessness in San Francisco might be illuminating.
Like many cities, San Francisco has provided homeless shelters. These shelters, however, are disliked by the homeless because of their many restrictions. This article explains some of the problems associated with homeless shelters. A better model for providing shelter while helping the homeless get out of homelessness, has been the navigation center which is taking the place of the Homeless Shelter in SF and elsewhere. In the traditional shelter, the homeless individual can only stay during the night, and has to leave during the day. They cannot bring in pets, or belongings, or stay with their partner, In the navigation center, they can stay during the day, bring pets and their partner. As well, they receive more assistance there to obtain services and get permanent housing. But the navigation centers are more expensive, costing, in SF, $69 a night per person compared to the $36 per night that shelters cost.
The adult shelters in San Francisco— there are separate, smaller facilities for families and those ages 16-24 — receive $13.8 million a year from the city, but cost $16 million to run. Private funding makes up the difference. To operate those shelters as Navigation Centers would mean roughly doubling the city’s annual outlay to $32 million.
Supportive housing is something else that has worked in San Francisco and elsewhere: this article explores that . Looking at the costs of providing only shelters, versus providing supportive housing, this article in the SF Chronicle came to this conclusion:
Some 3,500 are estimated to be “unsheltered,” and about half of those make up the hard-core street population — the most obvious, most troubled and most expensive homeless people in the city to care for….each of those chronic cases costs about $80,000 a year in police, jail, ambulance and other tabs. By contrast, it costs about $20,000 a year to keep a person in a supportive environment — the permanent housing where on-site mental therapists, substance abuse counselors and other social workers can help keep a person off the streets.
There are different causes of homelessness, and as pointed out in this article, some of the greatest social problems caused by the homeless — shooting up on public streets, squalid encampments, filth — are caused by these “hard core” homeless individuals. So it makes sense to focus on those if only in order to abate the public nuisance stemming from their camps on the streets.
Sanctioned Campgrounds, Tiny Houses, Pod-Houses
New forms of housing the homeless are arising — such as city-run sanctioned campgrounds, tiny houses, shipping container homes and other “mini” houses. The book Tent City Urbanism by Andrew Heben explores some of these possibilities. He lists sanctioned tent cities in Seattle WA, St Petersburg FL, Las Cruces NM and Placerville CA. These offer ways of providing shelter or permanent housing to the homeless — and at lower cost than standard homeless shelters or even the smallest standard apartments.
However, when looking at these options for housing the homeless I think it’s important to keep in mind that these options also apply to those who aren’t homeless, It’s not only the homeless who need less expensive housing than is generally available. The demand for more affordable housing is becoming ever greater as housing costs escalate, growing into a widespread movement, not only in major urban centers in the United States, but also in many urban centers in Europe, and perhaps elsewhere. Many people are finding it more and more difficult to afford to live in urban centers like San Francisco, New York, London, Los Angeles. Our government already provides assistance as well as Section 8 subsidies for people with no income or incomes below poverty level, but there is no financial assistance for those with a “low income” that is above the poverty level, nor for middle income people. Hence we have to ask, if cities are going to provide less expensive forms of housing, such as tiny homes or container home communities, whether these houses should all go to the homeless, or whether some such housing should go to those with above-poverty level income who cannot receive government assistance, but who can’t afford standard housing in the city. In other words, if cities are going to invest in alternative and less expensive forms of housing, who should be the recipients thereof. I address this question and the ethics involved in it, below. It’s by no means clear to me that cities should help only the homeless, and not those who struggle to find any affordable housing in the city. This then opens the perplexing question of what criteria cities should use to determine who to help. Many cities already have rent control laws which makes housing more affordable for some, but rent control is not income-based assistance: tenants benefit from rent control whether their income is at poverty level or over $1 million a year.
It’s also important to keep in mind that even if new alternative forms of “micro-housing” are built, it may not be possible to continue to meet the need for affordable housing in some urban centers where demand for this is very high –such as the New York City region, and the inner San Francisco Bay Area. Particularly in dense cities without much land available to develop, there is a limit to how much can be done in this regard.
Solutions for Neighborhoods
Something that seems missing in many discussions about “helping the homeless” is the fact that it’s not only the homeless themselves who are impacted by homelessness. It’s also city neighborhoods, residents, business districts, parks, people seeking to make recreational use of city parks, and sometimes individual buildings, vacant lots, and public streets which see blight, illegal dumping, illegal camping, public defectation and urination, aggressive panhandling, public intoxication, and frightening behavior by people who are clearly seriously mentally ill. In my view, these problems caused by the homeless, as well as those who are not actually homeless but who wander the city streets causing problems for area residents, need to be taken into consideration along with the problems experienced by those who are homeless.
Substance Abuse and Serious Mental Illness
Because so many of the homeless have a substance abuse problem and/or a serious mental illness which may have caused their homelessness, it doesn’t make sense to approach the problem of homelessness without attending to these two very difficult problems. But they are difficult problems. Recently, a woman died on the streets in Berkeley, apparently because she was homeless and an alcoholic and could not be without her booze. So even though she had a shelter available to her to stay in, she was found outside in the cold, in a backyard on someone’s private property, where she died . Her sister wrote to the Berkeleyside paper to provide something of the story of Laura’s life, including how she herself knew that her disease would likely kill her: Most homeless shelters prohibit alcohol on the premises, but some have taken a different approach , realizing that to prohibit alcohol is in essence to make the shelter inaccessible to chronic alcoholics. So they provide alcohol to alcoholics at the shelter, but only in sufficient amount to ward off the symptoms of withdrawal, in essence combining a sort of “poor man’s” substance abuse treatment with shelter accomodations.
Others die from the consequences of their mental illness — such as Karen Lee Batts, who died in Portland , apparently from exposure, after being evicted from her apartment when she failed to pay a long overdue $338 in rent.
While some would argue that the cause of her death was the eviction, and fault the landlord, such a superficial view of the situation fails to take into consideration the burdens which are placed upon private property owners. Such owners after all are not charitable organizations, are not mental illness agencies and providers, but are businesses which must retain the right to end their contracts with those who either become unable to pay, or engage in behavior which disturbs other tenants. In fact, rather than faulting the landlord in this and similar cases, it would make more sense to use such situations to clarify that our present system of caring for indigent people with serious substance abuse or mental illness by simply subsidizing their housing that they rent from private property owners, is deeply flawed.
There are profound flaws in our ability to care for the seriously mentally ill (as distinguished from those who suffer mental illness but are not so incapacitated by it that they’re unable to provide for themselves or work) in at least two areas. One is that the de-institutionalization of the seriously mentallly ill has led to these individuals enjoying a questionable “freedom”, one in which it’s become all too apparent that, apart from the pointless merry-go-round rides through 72-hour holds in psychiatric facilities, they are “free” to behave in ways that endanger themselves or others. This often means that they are “free” to live in cardboard boxes or filthy tent camps on city sidewalks, while delusional and out of their minds. Thus means that our city streets often become de facto open air insane asylums.
This “freedom” of the mentally ill to be un-institutionalized, also means that they get many “free trips” to prison, which in addition to our city streets is becoming a secondary de facto insane asylum, as this article indicates, where it’s stated that
In 2012, an estimated 356,000 mentally ill inmates were being held in state prison, compared to just 35,000 in state-run psychiatric hospitals. In other words, the number of mentally ill people in prisons is ten times that of mentally ill in state-run psychiatric hospitals.
Even if the mentally ill individuals themselves desired to be housed in psychiatric facilities, subsequent to the emptying of such institutions in the 1950’s, we have simply lost the space for them. From the same article:
During the 50s, the total number of beds in America’s psychiatric state-run hospitals neared 559,000. Today, the number of beds is down to roughly 35,000. With a population almost double what it was in the 50s, this means that the majority of mentally ill are left with two options: jail or the street. “I know of police officers who have stumbled on homeless who are mentally ill and completed debilitated. They put them in jail—just to keep them safe,” Torrey says.
So in essence, as this article from the Atlantic makes clear, America’s largest mental hospital is a prison.
At Cook County Jail, an estimated one in three inmates has some form of mental illness. At least 400,000 inmates currently behind bars in the United States suffer from some type of mental illness—a population larger than the cities of Cleveland, New Orleans, or St. Louis—according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of all mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives.
I believe that these facts demonstrate the obvious: that as a nation we need to bring back psychiatric institutions and involuntary institutionalization of the seriously mentally ill, if only because these are more suitable and humane places to house the mentally ill than the prisons or city sidewalks to which they now are “committed.” Prisons and city sidewalks are absolutely not the place in which to provide treatment to such people, nor is it fair to those who run prisons to be expected to provide psychiatric care without training, or to expect city residents to tolerate open air asylums in their streets, and often right in their neighborhoods.
In the past, some of these psychiatric institutions contained abuses and inhumane treatment. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and closing these institutions, we need to explore new, more humane ways of institutionalizing those who are unable to care for themselves and/or endangering others.
Some of the chronically mentally ill as well as the chronic substance abusers are fortunate in that they receive support from service agencies to assist them in signing up for government aid, whereby they can receive Section 8 subsidies for housing. The difficulty with this, is that there is not enough such subsidized housing to meet the need, not by a long shot.
There are officially 371,740 families on Section 8 waiting lists for 104,133 units of already filled housing. For Public Housing, there are only 25,268 units, but 93,632 families waiting for units to come free.
The San Jose Housing Authority administers approximately 12,110 Section 8 certificates and vouchers. Their waiting list for section 8 is approximately 27,500. The waiting list is more than double the number of Section 8 eligible people that they can, and are currently, housing.
❖ The City of Los Angeles administers approximately 35,000 certificates and vouchers. There are 155,000 names on their wait list. 3
❖ Los Angeles County figures are even more grim: its Community Development Corporation administers a total of 17,000 certificates and vouchers, yet their wait list contains 148,000 names. There are nine times more people waiting for housing than the total that are currently housed.
❖ The Alameda County Housing Authority opened their Section 8 and Public Housing lists during the period from August 1 through August 20, 1999, and collected 15,000 names. The authority then held a random lottery among the 15,000, which cut the list to 3,000. In other words, 12,000 families, or 80% of those who signed up for government subsidized housing in Alameda County, were eliminated randomly.
❖ The San Francisco Housing Authority collected 45,000 names when they opened their Section 8 waiting list in March, 1998. The agency conducted a random lottery to pare the list to a more manageable (and realistic) 10,000 names. The remaining 10,000 people were then ranked by criteria such as residency, veterans preferences, elderly, etc. The key issue, however, is that 35,000 people, or over 78% of those who signed up for government subsidized housing, were eliminated by a random lottery, not by criteria such as income, need, credit history, etc.
❖ Berkeley, beginning November 11, 1999, opened its Section 8 list for 10 days. In a conversation with the Housing Director on the first day that the list was opened, he indicated that they anticipated collecting about 2,000 names. They actually collected 5,500 names. They are now discussing holding a lottery to cut the list to a more manageable number.
In addition to these ominous facts, individuals have a much lower likelihood of finding housing if they have poor credit or an eviction history, which many do.
Yet at the same time as it’s abundantly clear that there aren’t enough government subsidies to help all those who need it get into housing, we are seeing an increase in the number of homeless in many cities. Recently Oakland saw a large upsurge in the number of homeless on its streets, after San Francisco began to do more to aggressively sweep out entrenched homeless encampments. We are also seeing more and more demand for “affordable housing” among those who find that market rate housing now puts them out of reach of being able to afford to live in areas where they have long resided. And it’s not only the poor who are asking for help in obtaining housing: at a recent Berkeley City Council meeting, addressing a Council which had become so fixated on helping the homeless, one resident pointed out that the city has dedicated approximately 20% of its housing assistance to the poor and homeless, but only 4% to those of middle income who are unable to afford housing. This serves as an example of how the very poor are already receiving the largest amount of aid from city governments, and that their requests for still more aid have to be balanced against the needs of other populations.
Cities are being asked to spend more money to house the homeless who are increasingly demanding housing as a “right” that they feel entitled to, but many cities dont’ have the funds to provide this. Berkeley for instance does provide many homeless services, and has a budget of some $2.5 million for homeless services. There is a great deal of political pressure for them to provide still more, however, there are also pressing needs in city infrastructure which need to be attended to, and which could be very costly — such as the flooding problems in a local park — apparently Berkeley faces $100 million in expenses for necessary infrastructure upgrades in parks. Also, Berkeley has recently seen very considerable expenditures in simply evicting or clearing out illegal homeless camps — it’s cost upwards of $300,000 within less than 6 months to remove the “First they Came for the Homeless” group which continually camps in prominent and particularly inappropriate spaces, typically street medians in the middle of a public thoroughfare. Berkeley and the Bay Area are also burdened by actions of misguided attorneys such as Osha Neumann who threaten to sue the city for enforcing its existing laws and protecting neighborhoods from the public nuisance caused by the homeless.
Hence, I have suggested to the Berkeley City Council that all city expenses necessitated to evict illegal homeless camps or pay for legal fees caused by attorney homeless activists, should be deducted from the city’s overall budget for homeless services. Such an arrangement would be a helpful empowerment to the city’s homeless as well as to those whose attempts to help the homeless by attacking the city, demonstrating to them that they themselves have power to determine the amount of funding available for the homeless : and the more nuisance they cause, the less funding will be available.
What’s the Solution?
Given all the obstacles and limitations mentioned, what are the best solutions for homelessness?
I think that it’s unrealistic to expect cities alone to address what is essentially a national problem — particularly given that the number of homeless is much greater in some municipalities than others, so the burden that they present to cities is not equally spread out. Homelessness needs to be addressed at every level of government — federal, state, county and local — and coordinated within these levels.
Ideally, cities will provide the homeless with the most services, and the best options for shelter and housing that they can, within their budget. By becoming clear about just what they can and cannot offer, and stepping up their efforts to provide adequate shelter for ALL the homeless in their city, municipalities can gradually emerge from the problematic position they have too long occupied, of simply being passive bystanders to the suffering and desperation, as well as nuisance and crime, which is associated with homelessness on their streets.
I view this sequence of problems as the primary dilemamas characterizing present day attempts of city governments to address homelessness: (1) the city does not have enough shelter beds or housing for all of its homeless population, (2) the city has excessive tolerance for the refusal of homeless individuals to accept the shelter provided for them and their choice to live on the streets instead, (3) cities’ efforts to remove homeless encampments are inefficient and inadequately sustained, so that they result in a periodic cleansing rather than a complete removal, (4) cities aren’t doing enough coordination with other regions of the nation to explore where housing might be more available for the homeless.
It’s my belief that getting mental health services and/or substance abuse treatment for all those who need it, as well as arranging for subsidized permanent housing for all those who need it, in all the cities in the US where these things are needed, is something that is not going to happen soon, if ever, particularly with a new federal administration which is making cuts to social services agencies. There are indeed some cities — notably, Salt Lake City — which have been able to house a large number of their homeless. But as noted in that article, all of Utah had 2000 homeless individuals, whereas California has 29,000 homeless. As well, the situation in Utah has not been a complete success, as discussed in this article which describes hundreds of people still housed in shelters and 71 people applying for one housing vacancy.
Consequently, I think cities will be forced to “solve” the homeless problem with something short of providing permanent housing to all in need. I think it’s crucial for cities to avoid becoming beholden to entitled demands, and to recognize, and perhaps frame as a mantra, that “Beggars can’t be choosers”, and that people who have no ability to provide for themselves and are reliant on handouts from others, cannot be permitted to become picky and demanding about what exactly what type of charity they are given. The fact that homelessness results in uncomfortable situations, and less than ideal shelter housing, functions as a necessary deterrent. Though most of us can’t stand by and watch people suffering, and want to provide help to those so afflicted, it’s also necessary to keep in view the fact that people have often become homeless through their own mistakes, poor planning, their own irresponsibility. One of the biggest problems with the way that our nation addresses poverty now, as well as the crime often associated with poverty, is that we have lost the ability to hold people responsible for their own bad choices.
While it would be inhumane to simply blame people for the problems that they’ve gotten into without attempting to help them, it’s also unpalatable to many that we should offer more and more help to people without expecting them to make an effort or give something in return. According to Marvin Olasky, author of “The Tragedy of American Compassion”, we did charity better at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. Since then, we’ve “misapplied” charity and offered it “promiscuously”, and this has resulted in the tremendous growth of attitudes of entitlement, such that many now expect that they should be able to repeatedly fall down on their behind and every time be handed a golden parachute to cushion their fall.
Homeless shelters often rejected by the homeless because of their restrictions or potential dangers. For instance the “First they Came” homeless protest group in Berkeley states that they dont’ want to use shelters because the shelter may have violent, mentally ill persons. Others dont’ want to use shelters because they can’t store their belongings there, bring pets in, bring alcohol in, or have their partner with them. Cities can work to solve many of these problems. Certain shelters can be reserved for the more seriously mentally ill, who would be prohibited from using other shelters. Some shelters could allow alocholics to bring in alochol, or serve alcohol in order to fend off withdrawal symptoms. Other shelters could allow pets or families, and storage of belongings could easily be arranged on site.
Once shelters have been made more user-friendly and accomodating, and there are enough of them, cities should in my view take a very aggressive approach to prohibiting large homeless encampments. Not only do these encampments involve nuisance, blight, public health safety concerns, filth and lack of sanitation and crime, but when cities permit them to exist, they open themselves to liability. Cities can be held liable not only for the problems ensuing from the encampments, but also, as we have seen in the case of the Gilman encampment and the First They Came for the Homeless encampments, cities can end up being sued if they allow the camps to get set up and then dont’ follow exactly the correct procedures in removing or cleaning up the camps.
In sum, I think cities can would do well to address the problem of homelessness by (1) first offering whatever type of shelter and/or permanent housing they can create within the parameter of their budget, which may include very low cost “alternative” forms of housing such as converted shipping containers, tiny houses, as well as city-run and city-sanctioned tent camps which should be designated for temporary residence only. (2) Secondly, while directing the homeless to these shelters and housing, cities must adamantly refuse to allow people to set up non-sanctioned, ad-hoc camps on public property.
Ultimately however I think the solutions to homelessness need to come from state and federal governments, for the problem is too large and too costly for cities to cope with individually, on a city by city basis. Setting up the equivalent of large “refugee camps” in suitable locations all around the country, and sending service providers there to help those without housing, may be a good way to organize this. Particularly since some states are far more heavily effected by homelessness than others (California has 25% of all the homeless in the entire nation), and because homeless people can migrate to areas where they feel the living is better, it is not fair to cities which are seeing outsized impacts of this problem, to demand that they solve it on their own.
UPDATE JULY 2018
I just saw this news story which admittedly is an old one, from 7 years ago, but this made me angry. Here is a place in California where living is inexpensive and people have been able to build their own homes — this is a perfect solution for many low income or homeless people — and yet the government started meddling and has driven people off their own land.