One of the enduring and bipartisan ideas in Washington for more than 13 years, championed by both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, has been that homelessness can be licked. It is an audacious goal, one that relies on a strategy called “housing first”: Give the homeless a sense of dignity by providing a permanent residence and then try to meet all their other needs. As Donald Trump prepares to occupy the White House, it is worth asking: Does this strategy still work?
The data is pretty clear. Since 2007, the number of individuals and families who are considered chronically homeless has declined 35 percent. In 2016, the number dropped again, by 3 percent to 550,000 people. This is steady progress in implementing a worthwhile idea, or what Mary Cunningham of the Urban Institute calls “a complete paradigm shift in how communities respond to chronic homelessness and people living on the street.”
While the “housing first” idea has been essential, so too has been the federal push for local people and agencies to work personally with each homeless person to solve his or her complex problems, from addiction to domestic abuse to job loss. Trusting, long-term relationships with volunteers, many of whom come from the faith community, have made a huge difference. They offer the stability and affection that keep many of the homeless from cycling through jails, shelters, rehab centers, and the streets.
The federal government has provided a critical vision of how to treat the homeless – the dignity that comes from being rooted in a community – as well as billions in assistance. The economics also make sense. One study, focused on central Florida, found a homeless person can cost taxpayers about $30,000 a year if he or she stays on the streets. That cost drops to $10,000 when a homeless person has a residence and support. But while government services are necessary, the progress toward ending homelessness also requires loving and supportive volunteers who know the resources to solve the problems that cause homelessness.
Mr. Trump says he represents the “forgotten” in the United States, and that certainly includes the homeless. Perhaps he’ll be the third president in a row to aim for the goal of ending homelessness.