Opinion

Op-ed: Confronting the causes and solutions of mass homelessness

Policy makers, government agencies, funders, and nonprofits alike all cling to the concept and importance of data like it is a panacea for societal ills—it is not. Data is only as good as our ability and willingness to act on it. Case in point: homelessness.

Where Does Mass Homelessness Come From?

Mass homelessness was not always our reality. Poverty has always existed but poor people scraped by with shared resources, in whatever living arrangements they could afford: today’s reality of mass numbers of people on our streets is the result of specific policy decisions. The deterioration began when affordable housing began to evaporate when the Reagan administration slashed funding: federal spending on housing assistance was reduced by 50% between 1976 and 2002. At the same time, gentrification sped up, with cities ditching cheap housing like single room occupancy units, replacing them with more expensive housing. The units being built were more often co-ops and condos for ownership instead of rental units. Federal incentives to build affordable housing all but dried up. Add to that the HIVAIDs crisis, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, cutbacks to the social safety net, and the rise of mass incarceration with difficult barriers for reentry populations, and you have today’s crisis.

And once our communities became filled with people without homes, they were trapped: there is no easy escape once housing is lost, due to the widening housing affordability gap in our region. In the Bay Area, hundreds of thousands of affordable rental units have been lost, and government at every level has cut back on already-inadequate housing assistance for low-income people, reducing investments in building and preserving affordable housing. The weakening of rent regulation laws, which help keep around half of all rental apartments in the Bay Area affordable, has accelerated the loss of low-cost housing.

This is not a problem that can be solved by the private sector: federal, state and city governments, who hold community purse strings and purport to govern according to our shared values, must significantly increase investments in affordable rental housing, with a significant portion targeted to homeless families and individuals, including strengthening rent regulation laws to preserve affordable housing and protect tenants, allowing them to keep their homes.

In Berkeley, and soon to be implemented countywide, a coordinated entry process is in place whose primary goals are that assistance be allocated as effectively as possible and that it be easily accessible no matter where or how people present themselves. The aim of the coordinated entry process is to help cities prioritize assistance based on vulnerability and severity of service needs, so that those in most need are served first—a centralized housing triage system. Yet there is a lack of resources available to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness, and inadequacies in the coordinated entry processes mean that homeless people in severe hardship are still not being responded to effectively. Of course, the system is relatively new and there will be a costly and lengthy learning curve, as practitioners gather data about service needs and gaps, to help future planning and to identify needed resources.

Still, whatever we learn about needs and processes (something communities have already studied for decades), it will not take us any closer toward the creation and renovation of affordable housing. Coordinated entry is a great concept and may yield many benefits for people in need, but if we put all our eggs in that basket we ignore what mountains of data are already telling us: We need more housing.

Which Came First, Policy or Practice? 

Policy makers often create policy in a vacuum, with inadequate understanding of how the policy will play out in real life. Practitioners and participants should give voice to their needs and strengths, and researchers need to listen. In this way, research is conducted and policies are created that make a difference on people’s real day-to-day problems and needs. To make their voices heard, practitioners and clients must participate in the political process – at the agency level, as well as local, state and federal levels. And policy makers need to listen.

Theoretically, research, policy, and practice form a connected system: policy influences practice and research, setting the parameters for how practitioners operate, and what type of research gets funded. Research should then influence the creation or adaptation of better policies and better on-the-ground practices, by providing the best possible science and practitioner experience/wisdom and community/client values. When the system elements become disconnected—for example, policies are created without input from practitioners or clients—then communities suffer: policies are not relevant to real life needs, and research is not incorporated into standard practices.

One Solution to Rule Them All

Since modern homelessness began, research and experience have overwhelmingly shown that investments in permanent housing are extraordinarily effective in reducing homelessness — as well as being cost-effective. Many of the most successful housing-based policies are designed to address the housing — in particular, permanent supportive housing for individuals living with disabilities and other special needs. Research studies have consistently confirmed that long-term housing assistance successfully reduces homelessness – such as (1) Federal Housing Assistance, (2) Permanent Supportive Housing, and (3) Housing First. When people are housed, homelessness is solved, their health and safety are increased, and community life is enhanced. The other issues they experience (mental illness, chronic health needs, income/employment) can then be addressed by the appropriate systems—health care, workforce development. These are issues that can be addressed far more effectively when someone is safely housed.

The fact is, everyone working to end homelessness already agrees how to solve it, but there has not yet been ambitious enough policy or adequate financing to make it a reality. We have taken the first steps in recent years by changing the mentality around homelessness to focus on housing first, rapid rehousing, and permanent supportive housing (housing without time limits that is supported by on-site services). Research shows that communities implementing these solutions are having the most progress.

In Alameda County, we have the opportunity to take this progress further. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to place a $580 million housing bond on the November ballot. This measure is a much needed investment in affordable homes for low-income renters, homeownership, and an Innovation Fund to seek new solutions to our housing crisis. It will require that 20% of the rental housing units be reserved for extremely low-income households at or below 20% Area Median Income, provide homeownership opportunities, and provide support to help keep residents in their homes. The passage of this bond measure in November will be a critical piece in providing needed affordable housing for vulnerable populations, first responders, and providers to live in the cities of their choice.

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Donald Frazier is Executive Director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS).