Kirk is doing everything you would expect him to do.
Having lost his job amid the recession and been mostly homeless since September of 2009, he’s applied to literally hundreds of thousands of jobs – he has 12,000 pages with 36 sent applications per page in his email inbox – while also trying to navigate the Seattle-area homelessness system. He’s focused mostly on legal jobs given that he has a Bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary prelaw and a paralegal certification from a community college. He even managed to secure housing a few times, briefly, but lost one apartment when his unemployment benefits ran out, and was kicked out of housing through homeless programs twice because of errors in his psychiatric assessments. He also secured jobs twice, but they were both seasonal positions, one with the United Postal Service and another with Wal-Mart.
“Trying to find work and being homeless, the biggest problem is that you don’t have anywhere to go home and rest,” he said. “All the other stresses of not having any money, not having anything good happen to you in the last four or five days, these things weigh very heavily when you’re looking for work.” A few nights before he spoke with ThinkProgress, he was nearly jumped. He once woke up to find someone had taken his suitcase, along with all of his clothes.
Someone like Kirk likely wouldn’t have experienced such a long bout of homelessness in the decades leading up to the 1980s. But since then, thanks to a series of events but most notably the gutting of affordable housing, the country has experienced mass homelessness not seen since the Great Depression. More than 600,000 Americans don’t have a home to sleep in on any given night, with over 100,000 chronically dealing with the problem.
Even with the size and scope of today’s homeless population, though, it’s not an unsolvable problem. The United States does actually know how to end homelessness. So why is Kirk still sleeping in a park?
The 1980s “was when contemporary homelessness really began,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “It’s really critical to remember that we didn’t always have mass homelessness in this country.”
After the widespread homelessness caused by the Great Depression, it became a limited and short-term problem for decades. Homelessness will always exist among people experiencing unexpected poverty, struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, or coping with other unexpected events. But it used to be that getting back on your feet didn’t take months or years. And homelessness used to mostly impact a narrow slice of society: white, urban, older men, many dealing with alcoholism.
“In the 70s, there was an adequate supply of affordable housing, even a surplus,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “If people lost their housing, you could get them back into some place right away.”
In 1970, there was a surplus of 300,000 affordable housing units in the U.S. But then, in the 1980s, affordable housing began to evaporate. The Reagan administration slashed funding. Federal spending on housing assistance fell by 50 percent between 1976 and 2002. At the same time, gentrification sped up, with cities getting rid of cheap housing like single room occupancy units and replacing them with more expensive stock, and units being built were more often for co-ops and condos for ownership instead of rent. Federal incentives to build affordable housing dried up. Add to that the AIDs crisis, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, cutbacks to the social safety net, and the rise in incarceration and subsequent hurdles for reentry, and you have today’s crisis.
By 1985, there were 8.9 million poor renters in need of housing but just 5.6 million units, a 3.2 million shortage. By 2009, there was a 5.5 million shortage. Today, just one in four eligible households gets federal rental assistance while rents keep rising, income stagnates, and a record number of families are paying more than what they can afford.
Other changes since the 1980s have been for the better. When mass homelessness emerged, we weren’t ready for it. “There was a process of learning, because we did a lot of things in the beginning that I think were intuitive, but we’ve learned a lot,” Roman said.
The original focus was on creating a plan to help someone with mental illness or substance abuse before getting her in housing, as well as a reliance on the shelter system, explained Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “If you go back a few years, it was an emphasis on creating a consensus plan on the local level,” he said. “If you went back 10 or probably 15 years, there was more of an emphasis on transitional housing.”
By now, if there’s one thing that nearly everyone working to end homelessness agrees, it’s that we know how to do it. It’s just a matter of making it reality. The focus is singular, as Rachel Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance explains. “People are homeless for different reasons and have different kinds of needs,” she said. “But one thing that everyone who’s homeless needs is a home.”
There are three ways advocates are going about pursuing this. The first is by changing the mentality around homelessness to focus on housing first. Previously, advocates thought it best to try to address issues dogging the chronically homeless such as mental health and substance abuse before getting someone into housing. Now they’ve flipped that on its head so that the focus is simply getting someone in a stable housing situation before addressing other issues. Laura Zeilinger, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the federal agency dedicated to homelessness, explained, “The communities really implementing housing first are having the most progress.”
For some people, however, there aren’t necessarily long-term issues – just the inability to afford rent. Rapid rehousing is another new and effective approach that’s replaced an emphasis on putting people in the shelter system. It can be expensive to get back into housing once someone has lost it: first month’s rent, a security deposit, and moving costs all add up. Rapid rehousing covers those costs and puts people in in real housing. “We’re finding that getting people back into housing and linking them with services is more effective than spending the same amount of time in a shelter or transitional housing,” Roman said.
And for those facing the highest hurdles, permanent supportive housing, or a place to live that comes with services like health care and job training, might be the right fit. “For veterans and single individuals who have experienced chronic homelessness, either on the streets or in a shelter system for a long time, permanent supportive housing works best,” said Jones.
“The evidence pretty much indicates that if you provide people with a housing subsidy, their homelessness ends and they don’t become homeless again,” Roman said.
That’s what Kirk thinks would happen for him if he could just get into an apartment. “If I got housing I’m sure I’d keep it. I know I’m mature enough to keep care of an apartment, I did it for years,” he said. “I know I could be successful for any housing program, but I don’t get in.”
It’s a simple, yet still radical idea, that for a person who’s homeless, the solution is a home.
The government is putting that idea to the test. In 2010, it launched Opening Doors, what it says is “the nation’s first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness.” The goal is to end homelessness among veterans by 2015, chronic homelessness by 2016, and to end it for children, youth, and families by 2020. Progress is already visible on the first goal, although it’s not clear if it will be met. Since the beginning of Opening Doors, veteran homelessness has fallen 33 percent and the number of veterans sleeping on the street has fallen by nearly 40 percent.
Some cities that are participating in the program have made even more progress. Last year, Phoenix and Salt Lake City both announced they had ended chronic homelessness among veterans. Both focused on a housing first approach, coupled with resources like job training and health care. Zeilinger said that New Orleans will end veteran homelessness before the federal deadline and is also on track to end chronic homelessness soon after that.
The point is supposed to be to create a “proof positive” by showing that when there’s a will, there’s a way to solve homelessness. End veteran homelessness, the logic goes, and you have concrete proof that you know what works and what it takes to end homelessness for other groups. That should in turn draw the necessary resources to the cause. “There’s a bipartisan acknowledgment that people who have risked their lives for our freedom should not come home to sleep on the streets,” Zeilinger explained. “The work we’ve done with ending veteran homelessness and the progress we’re making is showing we have the right plan and when we invest in the solution and put the appropriations behind it, we can drive change.”
But the danger is that while some groups have bipartisan support and will meet their goals, the progress will end there. “I think some folks actually do feel like if the main goal is to end chronic homelessness or end veteran homelessness, the campaign is over” after those milestones are achieved, Jones said.
That could mean Kirk would continue to slip through the cracks as someone who isn’t a veteran. He meets the definition of someone who is experiencing chronic homelessness because it’s been going on for more than a year, but if he were to once again obtain shelter only to lose it, he no longer would because he doesn’t have a disability. That last point has really been getting in his way. “It’s not just about having a housing problem,” he said. To get into most programs, “You have to have a mental condition as well or they have no help for you.” He also just got a new full-time job, which he says is “ironically” for a nonprofit providing mental health case management to the chronically homeless who struggle with mental illness.
“I’m sleeping on the street right now, but my company doesn’t know it,” he said. “I need to find housing for someone who does work.” But those needs aren’t on the agenda for quick solutions right now.
Zeilinger herself acknowledged this potential problem. Chronic homelessness hasn’t had the same kind of political support as veteran homelessness. In fact, the goal was originally to end it in 2015, but it had to be shifted back a year “because we haven’t been willing to invest $300 million to create the affordable housing that’s needed,” she said. “We’re hoping we can present that data [on ending veteran homelessness] and illuminate it to help folks understand the importance.”
There are other changes that need to be made to make this all work. Right now, the nonprofits that give out homelessness assistance in one way or another all get their own funding to run their own programs without speaking to each other. “If you’re a homeless person you have to wander around and figure out where you fit,” Roman said. There’s a push to bring everything into one system, so that a homeless person could go to one place, get assessed, and be connected with what he needed.
Kirk has experienced this challenge firsthand. “It’s really difficult to navigate this system when you’re homeless,” he said. “The bureaucracy seems too big and everything seems disjointed, none of the organizations seem to work together at all.” For some of them, he doesn’t have a severe enough mental illness to qualify. For another rapid rehousing-style program that helps the employed with the costs of moving into a new apartment, he can’t qualify because of his past, incorrect mental health assessments. “It seems like a 50-year-old black man who’s been homeless for the last year should be able to go to one place, and if they can’t house you they should say, ‘We know this place over here,’” he said. “None of the organizations here do that.”
“I’ve always felt that I fell through the cracks,” he added.
So if we have the solutions, why are there about 200,000 people going unsheltered on a typical night?
One reason is that while the solutions are clear, they take resources. “I think we have the potential to end homelessness within a generation,” Myers said. But “if we continue the investments that we’re making now, we won’t.”
For one small example, Zeilinger says the magic number for chronic homelessness is 37,000. “That’s the exact number of units we know it would take to end chronic homelessness in our country,” she said. But the money’s not there. The solution exists; we just haven’t funded it.
A commission formed by the Bipartisan Policy Center put forward one solution for the whole homeless population. It recommended giving rental assistance to everyone whose income is at or below 30 percent of area median income (AMI), or between $13,650 for a single person to $19,500 for a family of four, through a reformed voucher program. At a cost of $22.5 billion, the report notes, “It could, in effect, end homelessness for the vast majority of those experiencing it,” given that nearly all homeless households fall into the category of earning at or below 30 percent of AMI. Roman, who served on the commission, noted, “It would basically solve homelessness.”
Another plan would call upon an existing mechanism: the National Housing Trust Fund. Congress created it in 2008 to build affordable housing across the country. “It was never funded, so the mechanism exits, but we never put any money into it,” Myers explained. But if funded, “it could create upward of 1 million affordable homes over 10 years.”
To fill it up with money, the United for Homes campaign has proposed modifying the mortgage interest deduction, which by and large benefits the wealthy, by cutting off eligible mortgages at $500,000 and converting the deduction to a 15 percent non-refundable tax credit. The group says that would free up $200 billion in revenue over ten years to create affordable housing through the trust fund. “I think there’s a lot of bipartisan recognition of the fact that providing that housing subsidy to people who aren’t struggling to afford housing and people already doing fine may not be the best use,” Myers said.
With either plan, the cost of solving homelessness is in the billions. But that’s just for the raw outlay on building affordable housing and/or giving people subsidies. Those figures don’t take into account the potential savings from ending homelessness. It’s a costly problem: those without shelter end up relying on emergency medical services and getting picked up and put in jail at a much higher rate, both of which are expensive.
For example, a study by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness recently found that it costs the state $31,065 each year for each chronically homeless person living on the street in medical and incarceration costs. But it also found that it would take just $10,051 to give that person permanent housing with services like job training and health care. That’s just a third of the cost of doing nothing for those without shelter. Other smaller scale examples show the same thing: A newly opened shelter in Fort Lyon, Colorado will cost under $17,000 per person, compared to the estimated $43,240 it costs to leave them outside. An apartment complex intended for homeless people in Charlotte, North Carolina has already saved $1.8 million. Even the Bipartisan Policy Center proposal notes that its own cost estimates “do not take into account any potential savings resulting from fewer families becoming homeless or reduced health care costs.”
Perhaps an even more cost-effective tactic would be trying to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. That’s the focus of Boston-based HomeStart. The group kept getting calls from people on the verge of eviction but could only help them after they were already in a shelter, Linda Wood-Boyle, the organization’s president and executive director, said. So 11 years ago it got private funding to help keep people in their homes by covering some of what they owe to landlords and negotiating payment agreements for the rest. Today it keeps 550 to 600 people and families in their homes a year. And it saves a lot of money: the average cost to HomeStart for each saved tenancy is just $726, compared to the cost of $30,000 of putting that same tenant in a motel or shelter. Wood-Boyle doesn’t know of any other programs in the country like it. But “it can be replicated,” she said. “It takes coordination and it takes, frankly, cash.”
Even with that data in hand, however, there may still be political resistance. Homelessness has traditionally been a bipartisan issue; most of the advocates ThinkProgress spoke with recounted working with politicians on both sides of the aisle. Some conservatives have gotten involved out of religious convictions. Veteran homelessness is important to Republicans concerned about the armed forces. The work to end chronic homelessness first began under President Bush. And at the city and state level, politicians from both parties are working on it.
“There really has been bipartisan support for ending chronic homelessness,” Zeilinger noted. “I think sometimes where we fall down in choices about where to put funds.”
And therein may lie the rub. Even if no one is for homelessness per se, “If you don’t believe that there’s much of a role at all on social issues for the government, then you’re not going to be interested in what the government can do about homelessness,” Roman pointed out. The bipartisan support for the idea of ending homelessness hasn’t led to a bipartisan effort to actually fund the things that work, particularly in the current era of budget cutting.
Just look at sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board cuts Congress let go into effect last year and that may still come back into effect. About 70,000 fewer families got housing vouchers at the end of last year as compared to the year before thanks to the cuts. That pain continues this year, as a budget deal at the end of last year that offered housing agencies partial relief from the cuts will only allow them to restore fewer than half of the vouchers they cut last year. Homeless shelter and assistance programs were also hit hard by sequestration’s cuts, which meant fewer beds and cutbacks in supportive services.
“Even if there’s a desire [to end homelessness] and attention is given, if you’re not willing to put resources behind it, it doesn’t really matter,” Myers said. “That’s where I’m not seeing the bipartisan support.”
There can be an aversion to supporting anti-homeless agendas either because the problem seems overly complex and/or because the homeless are thought to get there due to individual failings like substance abuse or lack of initiative in getting a job. “I think there’s a lack of understanding among the general public about homelessness,” Foscarinis said. “There are many stereotypes about who homeless people are, and that colors public perception.”
Public support, however, may be shifting. Polling is finding that Americans are shifting from an individualized focus on the causes of poverty to embracing a structural explanation. And given that the problem has become so widespread – affecting families, suburban communities, and even those who hold down jobs – more and more people may be coming in contact with what homelessness looks like today. “Even if they’re not struggling themselves, pretty much everyone probably knows someone who has experienced homelessness or come very close,” Myers said.
Kirk’s own experience has politicized him. “One thing this whole experience has done for me is caused me to want to become an activist or advocate for homeless and safety net programs for poor people,” he said. He’s already had a chance at it. He saw a flier for a community meeting featuring local lawmakers. “I thought, ‘You know what, I’m homeless… I’m just going to go…tell them my story and see if they can help,” he said. “They actually sat and listened. I couldn’t believe that.” He’s now testified in hearings for two different bills that address homelessness.
The solutions are there. The public is moving in the right direction. What is lacking is political willingness to spend money. But most are hopeful that homeless will end in their lifetimes. “I’m in my mid-40s, I grew up in a generation that did not have mass homelessness,” Jones noted. “It’s definitely not only a solvable problem, but an aberration from how this country usually works.” The challenge is to put it back on the right track.