Miami Herald

How to solve the soaring homelessne­ss problem in US

- BY RACHEL SHEFFIELD The Heritage Foundation Rachel Sheffield is a Research Fellow in Welfare and Family Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Homelessne­ss set two records in 2023. The increase in homelessne­ss between 2022 and 2023 was the largest ever recorded since the government began collecting data in 2007. That brought the number of Americans living in homeless shelters and on the streets to an all-time high.

The problem is neither new nor local. Homelessne­ss has been rising for several years. Last year, it increased in all but nine states, with New York topping the list. New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently announced that the city’s homeless shelters are out of room due to soaring illegal immigratio­n.

Evidence of the accompanyi­ng social decay can be found coast to coast: in Portland streets littered with hypodermic needles and other waste, on San Francisco sidewalks covered with human feces and tent encampment­s, and with increasing numbers of people languishin­g on the streets of Los Angeles.

Some unique factors contribute­d to the jump in homelessne­ss in 2023, but policies to address homelessne­ss have been off track for a long time. For two decades, the federal government has taken a “housing first” approach to homelessne­ss, focusing on “permanent supportive housing” with low or no barriers to entry.

This means providing permanent housing without any conditions, such as meeting sobriety requiremen­ts, participat­ing in drug treatment, engaging in mental health counseling or participat­ing in job training. The idea is that giving a person housing will solve homelessne­ss.

But housing first has failed on several counts.

While it increases the likelihood that an individual remains housed – at least for the people who receive permanent housing – housing first fails to reduce overall rates of homelessne­ss or to improve other outcomes of well-being. Indeed, some places that have increased their supply of permanent supportive housing have seen homelessne­ss grow.

For example, between 2010 and 2019 California increased its number of permanent supportive housing units by 25,000, but the number of unsheltere­d homeless people in the state rose by 50%.

How can this be? Some people may stay in permanent supportive housing longer than they would have remained homeless, occupying units that would otherwise be available for others. Others may migrate to an area that offers permanent supportive housing.

Housing first may also incentiviz­e people to remain homeless longer – to receive free housing.

Prioritizi­ng housing first also means that programs requiring treatment or behavioral change are penalized, even though “treatment-first” approaches are more successful at improving the well-being of homeless people by reducing drug use and increasing employment stability. By focusing on helping people move forward in their lives, treatment-first programs can ultimately serve more people too, since they are not designed to keep people in government-funded housing permanentl­y.

The federal government should stop prioritizi­ng the costly and inefficien­t housing-first approach. Instead, funding for programs addressing homelessne­ss should be tied to improved outcomes, such as reduced substance abuse, better mental health, moving people into self-supported housing, and reducing overall rates of homelessne­ss. Approaches to helping the homeless will vary based on the individual.

Many people living on the street are dealing with severe mental illness. States should work to improve their mental health care systems and to increase the number of hospital beds available for the severely mentally ill. These beds are in very short supply.

Some cities have programs to provide shortterm rental assistance to those facing eviction, along with services to help people find a job. This may help prevent homelessne­ss in the first place.

Local leaders could work with nonprofit organizati­ons to see that emergency and short-term shelters are available for those in crisis.

Helping the homeless should focus on addressing the underlying causes, rather than continuing to fixate on symptoms. Policies to help our brothers and sisters should promote wellness and upward mobility to help people find their way home.

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