Homes for the homeless: a smart investment in dignity

Despite a recent rise in poverty, homelessness is down. One reason? Providing a residence for the homeless creates enough self-respect for them to deal with underlying issues.

Mayra Beltran/Houston Chronicle/AP Photo
Al Horne looks up at the rain falling on homeless people waiting in line to receive a Christmas meal by The Extended Aftercare Alumni volunteers on Christmas morning in downtown Houston. Volunteers distributed a holiday meal, clothes, and hygiene gift packages on Christmas morning in a tradition started to give people new to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction an opportunity to be of service.

Two decades ago, a simple idea was floated in the United States: Give homeless people a home rather than temporary shelter and their sense of personal dignity will rise, opening the way for them to solve their problems. 

The idea finally spread nationwide under President George W. Bush and has been enhanced by President Obama. This has led to an amazing result: Despite the drop in personal income and a rise in poverty caused by the 2007-09 recession, homelessness has dropped in recent years, according to new data.

The reasons now seem obvious. People who aren’t living on the streets or in temporary settings have better stability to deal with mental, drug, or family problems that often go hand in hand with homelessness. They don’t cycle in and out of hospitals, mental-health facilities, jails, courts, or shelters at great expense to taxpayers. They are not socially stigmatized by their living conditions. A home helps center them.

For charities and government, the cost savings of this “housing first” strategy have been a significant incentive to keep funding it. In 2010, the Obama administration even began to believe it could completely whip homelessness. It set a goal to end “chronic” homelessness by 2015 (or not have any individuals who have been homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years). It set the same goal for homeless veterans. But it set a less ambitious date of 2020 to end homelessness for families, youth, and children.

The goals may not be met by those dates, but that should not discourage efforts to give those struggling with homelessness the self-respect and stability that helps them keep off the streets. The next nationwide survey of the homeless population will be on the night of Jan. 28-29, offering yet another possible marker on recent progress.

“We know that combining permanent housing with a coordinated pipeline of supportive services is the best way to help people improve their lives and avoid future homelessness,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a recent speech.

Despite the nationwide results, many cities with the worst homelessness are worried about the future. A December survey by the US Conference of Mayors showed that homeless families with children were denied shelter this year in more than half of these cities because of inadequate capacity. The cities expect an increase in demand for shelter in 2013.

When a good idea works in addressing a social ill, both liberals and conservatives can often rally around it. They did so on welfare reform in 1996 and again on the housing-first strategy. Opinions may differ on funding levels or the degree of private versus government contributions, but good reform ideas can find a permanent home in society.

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