I spent the morning watching interviews of homeless people on YouTube, mainly from a page called Invisible People. There was a 23-year-old woman, Sabrina, living under a bridge in Seattle. She had been on her own from the age of sixteen, and she was a heroin addict. She died at 27 years old. Then there was Amanda, another woman living under a Seattle bridge, suffering from severe brain trauma. She spoke of remaining positive in tough circumstances, but her voice regularly broke while she held back tears. She has since found housing again. And there was Katie, a younger Canadian woman who was placed in foster care at the age of four and went through thirteen placements before striking it out on her own.
These are heartbreaking stories, but stories worth telling.
Invisible People is a documentary effort by television producer Mark Horvath in an effort to give a face and a voice to the homeless. Horvath himself has experienced homelessness before. Based on his own experience, and the countless interviews he has conducted, Horvath is a Housing First advocate, arguing that housing is a basic human right and that our efforts must be focused on affordable housing if we are to fix the homelessness crisis.
Is Horvath right?
As I listened to these stories, my mind raced with all the research I’ve absorbed over the past several months: how homelessness is often a result of untreated mental illness, drug addiction, and disaffiliation more often than it is a result of economics or someone being down on their luck. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t homeless people who really are simply down on their luck. That’s part of the problem of solving homelessness: Each side of the homelessness debate will generalize for the entire homeless population based on the subpopulation they are focused on. Some are focused on the mentally ill, the drug addicted, and the disaffiliated. Others are focused on those who, through little to no fault of their own, ended up on the streets. Both populations within the larger homeless population exist.
This is why Michael Shellenberger says “homelessness” is a misnomer. The homeless population is far more diverse than one singular label can contain. You will find addicts alongside the sober, severely mentally ill alongside the coherent, the criminal alongside the victim. This means the solution for the half-a-million homeless living on our streets and in our shelters cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. We must acknowledge each subpopulation within that half-a-million number and address each with the appropriate solution. For some, that will be drug treatment or healthcare. For others, it may be institutionalization. For others, it will be a stronger economy that fixes our current problems with housing costs and the job market.
Jason Rantz of Seattle’s AM 770 KTTH expressed the same idea in a recent podcast:
My top-line thoughts are to separate out who is homeless and why. I think when talking about homelessness, there is a tendency to treat everyone as if they’re just down on their luck and they fell on hard times — which is not the case, clearly, for everyone who is homeless. Yet we have a tendency to talk about things in such a specific way, with one end goal in mind. That’s usually driven by housing activists who want “affordable housing.” And that means different things in different areas.
But we have to address the reason why so many people are homeless, and unless you prioritize folks who are dealing with mental health issues that have not gone addressed, or an addiction crisis, or the folks who are, in fact, in hard times, you’re never going to come up with a solution that helps everyone. Each of those groups of people needs a specific solution. And I have seen the tendency to ignore the fact that we’ve got so many people living out on the streets because of a mental health issue or an addiction. And that’s making the problem worse.Jason Rantz, “We Need Specific, Narrowly Tailored Solutions to Homelessness | Opinion” at Newsweek
Homelessness will not — cannot — be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. The problem is too diverse and complex for that. Many of the homeless do suffer from an addiction or a mental illness (and a great many at that), and unless those underlying issues are addressed, housing will only be a Band-Aid on a festering wound. But there are also those who are free from addiction and mental illness who, for one reason or another, have fallen on hard times and need a helping hand.
Our solutions must be creative, nuanced, and diverse. They must be divorced from the partisan lines we so often fall into. Watch the stories of Sabrina, Amanda, and Katie. Lives are at stake here, lives that are too valuable for the prioritization of agendas.