Forty years ago, homelessness largely did not exist. Yet slowly and persistenly it grew and intruded itself upon ourselves. What really changed?
What has changed is that the steady expansion of credit was absorbed mostly into the housing market and this first drove prices up and then has forced interest rates downward and prices to even higher levels. It made transient housing progressively inconvenient even for those in the informal market.
We need transient housing capable of sucking in the slack as a matter of course. That same facility needs to be tied to a four hour work shift that justifies the bed, and two meals. This puts a natural bid under the labor market..
Homes for the homeless
But to identify himself as homeless – this is new.
The condition of homelessness is fluid, and so is our definition of it. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) placed the homeless population in January 2014 at 578,424, but advocacy groups such as the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness say that more than 3 million Americans experience an episode of homelessness each year: a night, a week or a month in a motel, in a recreation vehicle or on a friend’s couch might not make you ‘homeless’ in the eyes of the federal government, but they certainly define your lived experience.
Homelessness has always been more a crisis of empathy and imagination than one of sheer economics. Governments spend millions each year on shelters, health care and other forms of triage for the homeless, but simply giving people homes turns out to be far cheaper, according to research from the University of Washington in 2009. Preventing a fire always requires less water than extinguishing it once it’s burning.
If progressives are surprised by Utah, they will be horrified that Housing First began under President George W Bush. Between 2002 and 2003, hundreds of service providers and local officials met in Washington, DC to learn about the policy. Housing First generally comprises two prongs: permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless, defined as those prone to long bouts of homelessness as well as substance abuse or mental health issues; and rapid re‑housing assistance for the less acutely homeless, who are typically aided in finding a home rental and given basic living funds for a few months to help stabilise them.
In 2010, President Barack Obama’s administration released its ambitious plan for a reboot of the programme first started under Bush. The Obama plan was released quietly, but it came with a mandate and a timeline: to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015, and family and child homelessness by 2020. By then, Utah’s Housing First pilot programme had already proved successful: 17 of Salt Lake City’s most troubled and most expensive homeless people were given their own apartments.
Housing Opportunities’ apartment buildings are located away from the downtown business district and closer to residential areas. They feel more like college dorms than institutions. Communal areas, gyms, computer labs, libraries, community gardens and athletic facilities – it’s safe to brag about the amenities when all of this is cheaper than the alternative.
This kind of permanent supportive housing is developed by both public and private non‑profit entities using established funding streams already dedicated to affordable housing programmes. In Salt Lake County, the Road Home non-profit and the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City also operate similar dedicated facilities for families and individuals. Permanent supportive housing programmes also place the homeless in regular Section 8 housing, under which landlords accept housing vouchers in lieu of payment.
On my way to Utah this May, I read a letter to the editor in a local Salt Lake newspaper, decrying Housing First as wasteful, hopeless and a general insanity. Advocates in Utah tell me this isn’t a terribly common refrain. But it speaks to entrenched US attitudes that could forestall the wide‑scale adoption of the Housing First approach.
Assistance is given conditionally and you must earn it, just as you are presumed to have earned your place in hardship. Temporary transitional housing programmes, which are still the dominant form of housing available to the homeless in the US, hinge on righteously rewarding good behaviour – participation in drug treatment programmes, successful performance at a job – and punishing bad behaviour with eviction.
Honor thy god;
respect alike [the rights of] people both great and humble;
May everyone, from the old men and women to the children
Be free to go forth and lie in the road (ie by the roadside or pathway)
Without fear of harm.
Break this law, and die.
‘I’m looking to find an Orlando, a Denver, that’s serious about making this happen,’ Pendleton tells me. ‘My goal personally is to find a half a dozen states or counties or cities, and become a regular participant with them and say here’s how we did it, here are the principles, now let’s find the champions locally.’