Homelessness is devastating. First, it is a painful, often terrifying, traumatic experience for people who become homeless and for those who love them. Second, homelessness is an overwhelming social problem—one that weakens us as a nation and lays bare the underlying injustices that erode our country’s foundation. Homelessness does not represent a type of person or a set of bad decisions by an individual. Instead, it reflects the crossroads of all that is broken in our society: poverty; lack of affordable housing; unemployment; jobs that don’t pay livable wages; poor health care access; inadequate services for mental health, substance use, and trauma; an educational system that allows too many young people to slip through the cracks; fragmented families and dangerous neighborhoods; violence and victimization; racism; and social exclusion.
The good news is that homelessness is not inevitable. It is the result of a lack of political will, unresponsive public policies, our nation’s frayed safety net, and the unequal distribution of wealth—so that the rich continue to get exponentially richer, while the poor keep scratching and clawing just to survive. Among developed nations, we have the largest and fastest growing income gap between rich and poor.
The homeless services field (or as it has been dubbed by Jenny Metzler, the homeless industrial complex) has made progress in recent years by developing innovative practices such as Housing First, Rapid Re-Housing, Critical Time Intervention, Motivational Interviewing, and Trauma-Informed Care. These approaches have moved us beyond the band-aid solutions of shelter, socks, and hot meals, to housing and some services for tens of thousands of people. They have also given us increasing confidence as a nation that we know what works. Despite these gains, the focus on services and supports has not kept pace with the focus on housing.
While we have learned much about what it takes to end homelessness at the individual level, the structural forces working against us are powerful. We have not addressed the social and economic structures that created and continue to fuel the condition of homelessness. According to Barbara DiPietro of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, “It’s like we’ve engineered a larger bucket to bail the water out of the bathtub, but no one has turned off the faucet.” Or as our colleague Kevin Lindamood said, “We can’t end homelessness by ending homelessness.” We have to develop not only programmatic solutions that work, but also the public and political will to address poverty, housing discrimination, and the systemic issues that overlap with and create homelessness.
Lately the media has focused their attention on individual and community successes in the battle against homelessness. Phoenix declared that it eradicated chronic homelessness among veterans. The 100,000 Homes Campaign announced that it had achieved its goal of housing 100,000 of the most vulnerable people living on the streets. The annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count showed reductions in every subpopulation experiencing homelessness. We should celebrate these and other unheralded victories that happen daily. People find housing. They get jobs. They reunite with their children. They get sober. They rediscover meaningful roles in their workplaces, faith communities, schools, and families. We should celebrate these successes, but at the same time remember that the numbers of homeless people among various subgroups has reached historic highs.
The tone of recent media coverage suggests that we are well on our way to winning the fight against homelessness. It’s almost like landing on an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” banner and declaring victory while we are still in the middle of a war. Much of this perspective is based on the annual PIT count, which has signficiant limitations and does not account for the hundreds of thousands of others who become homeless during any given year. PIT data show a reduction in homelessness of 23,740 from 2011 to 2012 and a reduction of 152,968 since 2005. Even if we accept these as reflecting the current extent of homelessness, it would take between 25 and 35 years to end literal homelessness at our current rate, and would require a sustained investment of resources in Housing First, Rapid Re-Housing, and HUD VASH vouchers over decades. Again, we are just bailing water, not turning off the faucet.
In this challenging landscape, we should not over-simplify solutions to homelessness. We know more about what works, but we are also fighting deeply entrenched and formidable societal forces that work at cross-purposes with our targeted efforts to end homelessness. To win this battle, we must mobilize the political will to make changes, wrestle with the hard questions, and gird ourselves for a long and difficult fight.
In this context, we are pleased to announce the launch of Threads, an effort to offer a platform for thoughtful, passionate, and timely perspectives about homelessness, social justice, and our moral responsibility to one another. We need to give this issue a powerful and persuasive voice. By doing so, we hope to create a groundswell of voices to begin to move this issue onto the political agenda.
We hope that you will engage with us in an ongoing dialogue by offering your thoughts and comments, sharing these posts with friends, family, and colleagues in the coming days and weeks, and taking action to change your corner of the world.
Jeff Olivet, MA and Ellen L. Bassuk, MD
Center for Social Innovation