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Limits of “Housing First”

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Augustine, Tolstoy, and Robert Marbut walk into a bar… What sounds like a joke might be a way to make progress on homelessness.

Augustine 1600 years ago taught that we are naturally selfish and prone to mess up our lives. If we’re mentally ill and given an apartment with no strings attached, we’ll probably use it to stay apart from those who might help us. If we’re poor addicts and suddenly receive a windfall, we’ll probably use it not to get a second wind but to feed our addiction.

Leo Tolstoy 159 years ago began writing War and Peace. My favorite section concerns Borodino, not the name of a speech that goes on too long but the crucial battle near Moscow in 1812. Tolstoy says Napoleon’s command that 102 cannon “open fire and shell the Russian earthworks…. could not be done, since from the spots fixed on by Napoleon the shells did not carry so far.” Napoleon ordered one general to turn the Russian left flank and others to occupy specific fortifications, but in each case too many Russian troops were in the way.

Today’s Napoleons of poverty-fighting also promote grand schemes that underestimate reality. Happily, experienced hands are now pushing back. Robert Marbut, who directed the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness from 2019 to 2021, particularly criticizes the decision a decade ago that allows federal funding to go only to programs adopting a “Housing First” approach. This means since 2013 the only approved focus is on rapidly putting individuals into apartments, without any requirement to treat mental illness or substance abuse.

Since I started researching poverty issues in 1989, shelter operators have often shown me how such “compassion” kills. Let’s start with some stats. The California Policy Lab, a non-partisan research institute based at the University of California, published in 2019 a ground-breaking study of 64,000 homeless people. It showed 78% of the unsheltered acknowledging mental health conditions, and 75% substance abuse.

Not treating those problems means that while federal spending on homelessness has nearly tripled during the past decade, the number of unsheltered homeless has grown — and the problems of thousands isolated in apartments have deepened. A Boston study showed 45% of the chronically homeless dying while housed. The Los Angeles Times showed LA’s Project Room Key doing nothing to ward off the fatal attractions of methamphetamine and fentanyl.

Augustine wrote, “The man who does not act rightly although he knows what he ought to do, loses the power to know what is right.” Former interagency director Marbut contends that “Housing First has removed incentives for individuals to participate in treatment programs,” and pushed officials to measure their own effectiveness not by people helped but by the number of housing vouchers distributed.

Tolstoy wrote, “Even in the valley of the shadow of death, two and two do not make six.” But if we say “six” is “four” — that homelessness is not a complex mental and behavioral hexagon, but something solvable merely by providing a square meal and a square room — then we’re on our way to abandoning those who live in the valley of the shadow.

Here’s a more complicated but better way: Hand over room keys only if those who need them get mental health treatment, substance use disorder interventions, life-skill classes, and job training. Some on the political right push for congregant living because it’s less costly than providing separate apartments. That’s true, but some on the political left say the primary issue is not money but “dignity”: Everyone deserves a separate apartment. It’s strange for collectivists to turn into individualists when it comes to fighting homelessness.

Take a look at this month’s new report from Discovery Institute that shows “how Congress can reform government’s misguided homelessness policies.” Marbut is the lead writer: He wants Housing and Urban Development officials to stop redlining providers who link housing to addiction treatment, job counseling, or other services that can help a person reenter the world of sobriety and work.

Homelessness is complicated. Housing costs are a problem in some big coastal cities and a few others. Local governments should reduce burdensome regulations and building fees to encourage affordable housing construction. But addiction and mental illness are larger problems for many who are “sleeping rough.” Their lives are rough and they need real help, not mere warehousing out of sight and out of mind.