Housing First strategies are popular among states rethinking their homeless policies. In this editorial which first appeared in The Huffington Post, Executive Vice President of The Doe Fund Harriet McDonald advocates for more effective alternatives.
“Give the homeless homes.”
That’s the latest trend in our country’s fight to end homelessness. If we throw enough homes and money at the problem, somehow homelessness will end.
For a relatively small segment of the homeless population, a home may be the answer. We as a nation have a moral duty to provide safe and stable shelter for those who live with mental and physical disabilities that prevent them from working. Our tax dollars are well spent on saving these American lives. But that’s neither news nor an innovation.
The real question is, what about the rest — the majority — of homeless America?
I have spent 25 years advocating for the homeless. And I know that if the solution to homelessness were as simple as taxpayer supported homes, one of the thousands of smart, passionate advocates working on this crisis would have already come up with that answer.
In fact, “Housing First” policies only have the appearance of efficacy if we all agree to ignore the obvious: giving away homes is too expensive and it doesn’t work.
But from New York to Phoenix, housing fever has put cities and nonprofit organizations into a self-proclaimed “race” to end homelessness. There’s just one problem with treating this as a race. In every race, someone loses. And in this one, it’s the homeless themselves.
What happens when these programs are inevitably closed because a city’s housing dollars run out? The formerly homeless go right back to suffering on the street. It’s already happened in New York City, as recently as 2011.
And yet, here we are: reattempting the same type of policy, one that has been tested and failed. Except this time, we’re doing it on a grander, national scale. What’s going to happen? A grander, national failure.
All that these programs prove is that if you offer someone in need a free place to live, the vast majority will accept it. What they’ve failed to prove is that people will become self-sufficient simply because they’re housed.
The quality of their lives over the long run, their ability to live independently, their interpersonal and work skills… none of these come into the equation. And yet they’re the most important features a person needs to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.
That’s why the vast majority of homeless men and women don’t just need a home. They need opportunity. They need work. And they need the training, education, and supportive services to find it and succeed.
That is where we should invest our resources: not handing over tax dollars to landlords and hoping the problem corrects itself; but on work training, education, and paid employment opportunities that uplift a homeless person’s life, enrich their skills, and empower them to live independently.
Every day, I get the pleasure of seeing a plan like that in action. And every day, I see the formerly homeless succeed. They succeed because they find a path to self-sufficiency through work. And once they do, they’re much more than tenants in a subsidized apartment. They become productive members of society, full of potential, confidence, and the desire to contribute to their families and communities.
That is how we get to the end of homelessness:
It’s not a race to a home. It’s a journey to self-sufficiency.