Saturday, October 13, 2007

From the Horses Mouth

This week I came across Chronic Homelessness: Emergence of a Public Policy, a 2003 article that long-time homeless researcher Martha Burt wrote for the Fordham Urban Law Journal on recent homeless policy shifts toward focusing on chronic homelessness. Burt, along with Dennis Culhane, is one of the main researchers whose work helped bring Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness into vogue.

Fan of 10YPs that I am, I expected to find something to disagree with. Oddly, I didn't. I was amazed to discover that, in her dispassionate academic way, Burt sees the problems as well as the possibilities. It seems that where we've gone wrong is to adopt a sort of Ten Year Plan boosterism that pretends we can have the good parts while ignoring the troubling barriers that get in the way, as if these issues will somehow resolve themselves.

This has the effect of reducing the whole thing to a bit of a resources shell game that boosts the budgets of some human service providers at the expense of others while focusing on the visible homelessness that urban downtown interests find most troubling. It's a convergence of interests, but it's not "ending homelessness."

Let's start with the good parts. Burt says the research is clear: those who have been homeless long term opt for housing with supportive services when it is available, and, for the most part, they stay in that housing. It's expensive, but no more expensive than the cost of not doing so. Even better, the estimated total number of these people who need to be housed — roughly 150,000 to 250,000 people in a given year — is within the means of a concerted, long-term effort to achieve.

It's interesting that her research shows a more or less break even cost-benefit relationship, as opposed the the savings factors of two or three that we hear from Mangano and company. This strikes me as a more honest assessment.

While this is good news, it's qualified good news. Even as she expresses enthusiasm for the Ten Year Planning strategies then unfolding through the USICH and NAEH, she also cites numerous problems.

The first is that while its no more expensive and more humane to provide housing with services than to leave people on the streets and in shelters, these costs are born by different bureaucratic entities, and a savings realized by one does little to offset an expense borne by the other.

This brings us to the political will issue, and the difficulty of sustaining said will over time.

Finally, even the narrow approach of solving chronic homelessness will take more resources than seems to be politically possible at the moment. The rest of the homeless — families, working poor, etc — are unaffected and may even receive less attention than before as a result of the policy shift.

These problems alone are enough to give any prudent person pause. But the biggest issue is that the structural realities of rising housing costs, low wages, growing inequality, and diminished government support for programs that assist the poor essentially undermine the foundation upon which progress through the means of Housing First would be realized. Burt concludes:
First, housing has to become more affordable. The simplest way to do this is to subsidize housing; research indicates that the public policy that would do the most to reduce the risk of homelessness is subsidizing housing. This involves no need to build more units, no struggles over project siting or zoning or not in my backyard behavior. All it takes is providing those people with the most disparate housing costs in relation to their income the financial resources to remain in place. In addition, new housing needs to be created that is affordable by people earning relatively little despite working regularly — renewed incentives for producing affordable rental housing would greatly help the current situation of inadequate housing supply.

It is also essential that people who are poor today, and their children, have the educational and training opportunities to assure that they are not poor tomorrow. That is, we have to increase the ability of the poorest people in this country to afford housing without requiring subsidies in the future. The problem is, these steps are not in political favor at this time, being seen as the old anti-poverty agenda. Instead, present federal budget proposals actually offer significant cuts in public and subsidized housing — actions that in the long run will work against the federal commitment to end chronic homelessness. Ultimately, the solution to chronic homelessness will rest on the solution to homelessness in general; the latter begets the former. Only a few communities so far have committed themselves to this larger goal.
Seattle is one of those communities, but rather than embracing the challenges of what it truly means to end homelessness, we have over time moved toward a more limited focus on street homelessness. This is inevitable, in that ending homelessness would take political courage and imaginative organizing across class and issue constituencies. We need a broad-based organizing effort that can change the definition of the possible. What we have instead is a lowest common denominator effort that is directed from the top. That's just not going to do it.


Anonymous said...

The cost of our non-policy to address poverty's root causes continues to escalate at a tragic rate.

A formerly homeless family I have known for years offers a typical example--single mom with 6 kids, made homeless by domestic violence and sexual abuse of the kids. Mom has gallantly tried to hold things together and, with her mother's help, has moved into a farm-ette. This mom has tried to find any help for her kids--devastated by their father's abuse--who have acted out in textbook fashion the lives of the abused. This struggle costs way more than providing supportive services along the way. The human cost is incalculable. It's a cost that seems to be ignored by the policy makers in DC.
Diane Nilan, HEAR US Inc.

Pastor Rick said...

Wow, Tim, for once I'm more cynical and pessimistic than you. How the heck did that happen?

Poverty is the #1 issue -- the gap between income and housing costs is huge and growing. I've seen amazing numbers about how many people in King County are in jeopardy -- not homeless (yet) but they're paying 50% of their income for rent; this isn't sustainable over time. One tick (like a sizeable run-up in food costs or inflation) and they'll be making a choice between eating or sleeping inside.

I just got back from a meeting in Mount Vernon WA (Skagit County). The guy in charge said that they have 2,000 people homeless in their county, the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the state of Washington.

If those people can't be served in Skagit County, where do you think they will go? hmmmm.

Thanks for the article.

Tim Harris said...

I think there's been some mistake. Optimism wasn't my intention. I was simply struck by how even Burt, in 2003 anyway, tempered whatever enthusiasm she had for the Housing First paradigm with a healthy appreciation of how that's all undermined by the larger context.