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A Different View of Homelessness

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When Michael Ullman, with a sociology master’s degree and 25 of experience in managing and researching homeless services, submitted his manuscript on homelessness to the publishing arm of the State University of New York, an academic reviewer in 2020 gave it a thumbs down.

That’s not atypical, but the rationale was more explicit than usual: The manuscript, if published, will give aid and comfort to “opponents of current mainstream homeless policy…. Having the book published by a reputable publisher such as SUNY Press will give it a level of academic cred [higher than deserved for] insufficiently thought-out policy recommendations.”

I’ve read Ullman’s manuscript and am intrigued by the way some of his “insufficiently thought-out” ideas could potentially change mainstream policy:

  • Ask a homeless person if he or she could stay with family members or friends. HUD intake surveys don’t ask that, and homeless case workers are not taught to pursue reunification of single persons and their families.
  • Ask people who live in homeless facilities whether they regard themselves as homeless. Half the people in a typical shelter are short-timers who don’t think of themselves that way and probably won’t be homeless for long. Some, though, are long-haulers: One man under Ullman’s care was in a shelter for 22 years. Some are mentally ill and don’t want to leave. Middle-class social workers should not rely on their own assumptions.
  • Why, according to our new norms, does an apartment need to be a minimum of 500 or more square feet for just one person? Many people not receiving welfare payments share houses, with one or two people in each bedroom.
  • Why don’t we talk more about a primary cause for the increase in homelessness: Family non-formation and deformation, with household size shrinking and fragility increasing as many men wander in the streets? “Solutions” that ignore this are band-aids on cancer. 
  • Why count as homeless the 200,000 people living in what’s called “transitional housing”? They typically can live in those rooms, apartments, or houses for up to two years, which is more than many non-welfare people who sign one-year leases live in the same place. (My father moved from job to job: I never lived more than two years in the same place until I turned 13. Was I homeless all those years?)

I don’t have much patience for those who say being homeless is no big deal. It is, and Ullman doesn’t minimize the problems: “Individuals who spend long periods living unsheltered have a very high prevalence (over 50 percent) of serious mental illness (schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder) and debilitating substance-use problems (up to 80 percent).”

The relationship of homelessness and mental illness is complex. Some disorders precede time on the streets and some result from it, but Ullman is right to note that “individuals who spend long periods living unsheltered have a very high prevalence” of serious mental illness and debilitating substance-use. He’s also right that we should prioritize getting people off the streets and under roofs, which might mean sleeping “on metal bunk beds in small cubicle areas that provide a smidgen of privacy.… it’s certainly not a picture of the American Dream, [but] they are housed.”

Ullman criticizes purported solutions that “are often cost-prohibitive to build in large numbers because they must meet the norms and expectations of the wealthy.  Many middle-class advocates and social services professionals can’t imagine sharing a bathroom or even a house with a stranger, let alone having two unrelated adults sharing one bedroom. … Policy is made by individuals sitting in nice downtown offices” and big houses.

What’s wrong with that realism? What’s wrong with Ullman’s provocative explanation: “The creation of new, unsustainable and almost exclusively one-adult households needs to be understood as the engine of growth for modern homelessness and the focal point for intervention”? And’s what’s wrong with this distinction: “Having better amenities and more privacy is a different issue than not having a regular place to sleep at night.”  

I posed these questions to Dr. Dennis P. Culhane, an esteemed social science researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in homelessness questions. He criticized some of Ullman’s views and rejects any attempts to “settle for congregate facilities” such as cubicle shelters: “Single rooms with privacy and tenancy are fine in my mind.” But he agreed that some observers “too focused on one-bedroom solutions in unshared housing… paternalism is an issue in advocacy and provider communities.” That’s my sense too. I’d like to see a roof over every head, but I don’t see a right to live at no cost wherever a person wants.