House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump have pledged to revamp our nation’s welfare system for the first time since 1994. These changes could not come soon enough. The War on Poverty, which was launched in 1965, has cost three times as much as all our wars combined since the American Revolution.
Yet, after spending $22 trillion, this war remains a stalemate at best. And when it comes to homelessness, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported that America’s homeless population increased in 2017 for the first time since 2010. This trend is unacceptable. It must be reversed, and it can be if reasonable-minded people of good will on all sides have the courage to rethink their assumptions about how best to fight homelessness and poverty.
For too long, the conventional wisdom on fighting homelessness has said to put “housing first.” On its face, this approach makes sense: Put people in housing and you end homelessness. Right? But decades of experience and results suggest this strategy is incomplete. What works, instead, is a holistic and community-led approach that puts individuals and families first.
A recent groundbreaking study on youth homelessness by University of Chicago’s national Voices of Youth Count initiative exposed the limitations of a “housing first” model. The study found a strong correlation between homelessness and a variety of factors, including lack of educational attainment, unplanned pregnancy, substance abuse, mental health challenges, and low income.
- Youth without a high school diploma or GED are 3.5 times more likely to be among the more than 4 million youth and young adults who experience homelessness each year. This was the single highest risk factor for homelessness.
- Youth who are pregnant or parenting are more than three times as likely to experience homelessness. More than one out of three homeless young women are pregnant or parenting.
- Meanwhile, 28 percent of youth were reported as having substance use problems, and 66 percent were indicated as having mental health difficulties, while experiencing homelessness.
- Youth and young adults with lower household incomes were 162 percent more likely to experience homelessness than young adults with higher incomes. However, unemployment itself was not strongly correlated with youth homelessness. This suggests that employment will not by itself solve the problem. Instead, the focus should be on lifting youth out of homelessness through helping them obtain better-paying jobs, and the education and training necessary to secure such jobs.
Note that these factors that make people homeless aren’t necessarily addressed by a “housing first” approach.
In San Diego, our organization, Solutions for Change, has lifted 2,200 children and 850 families out of homelessness. We’re solving homelessness precisely because we’re putting families and individuals first. We’re providing the workforce development, life skills, counseling, and accountability necessary to provide permanent means of avoiding homelessness, rather than just a temporary roof over people's heads. For example, Lucy, one woman we served, escaped an abusive marriage and became homeless. Instead of sending Lucy and her five girls into temporary housing and hoping for the best, we invested in her family and provided them with the support they needed. Now graduated from Solutions University – our program of integrated services – Lucy has a great career is able to provide for her family.
Status quo approaches may not have worked for Lucy. And one-size-fits-all federal policies that elevate short-term “housing first” remedies for chronically homeless adults have failed to address the problems identified in the Voices of Youth Count report. In fact, putting youth in temporary housing without addressing the root causes of homelessness increases the chances they will become chronically homeless, while leaving them vulnerable to abuse and even trafficking.
In 2018, the homeless deserve our best ideas, not merely our good intentions. We need a new operating system and new approach that addresses challenges that exists today, not in 1965.
The “answer” to poverty and homelessness is that there is no national one-size-fits-all answer. And the decades-long failure to mitigate the problem has been the assumption that such an answer exists, that well-meaning national "experts" have it, and that local groups who dare approach homelessness from another angle are not worthy of federal funds.
In 2018, policymakers have the opportunity to make real progress in the fight against poverty and homelessness by measuring results over intentions. And in San Diego, we have an approach that works. Our principles and program might even serve as a template for other cities, although we don’t necessarily presume to know what will work best in Dallas, New York City, Baltimore or Cleveland.
Twenty million Americans are in deep poverty, and the homeless are often on the bottom rung. For 50 years, the federal government has treated them uniformly as poor, defective, and incapable, destined to be wards of the state. But social entrepreneurs across America are flipping that narrative on the bureaucrats who have insisted on the same approach for so long and failed to deliver results.
Local leaders are pioneering a new way of thinking about poverty and homelessness – a new operating system – that elevates local solutions above federal one-size-fits-all programs. The speaker and president, we believe, already share our view. We urge their colleagues in Congress and the administration to make 2018 a year of real progress on behalf of Americans who are longing for real hope and opportunity.
Chris Megison is the president and CEO of Solutions for Change.
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