Finding Home: Helping the Homeless Improve Their Lives and Reconnect with Community
Homelessness has become a daunting problem in many cities across the United States, particularly since the 1980s. Drug use, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, increased family breakdown, and higher housing costs have all contributed to the rise in homelessness. During the last two decades, federal and state governments have tried to address homelessness through a “Housing First” approach, which focuses on providing permanent housing with low barriers to entry. However, this approach fails to address deeper problems that often drive homelessness and has not reduced overall levels of homelessness. Policies to assist the homeless should focus on helping people overcome barriers that stand in the way of well-being and self-sufficiency.
As of January 2020, homelessness in the U.S. was at its highest level since 2014. On a single night in January 2020, approximately 580,000 people in the United States were homeless. Despite increasing in recent years, homelessness remains rare; 99.8 percent of the U.S. population is housed on a given night.
Some states have much higher rates of homelessness than others. New York has the highest rate of homelessness in the United States, at 47 people per 10,000, more than twice the national average of 18 people per 10,000. Hawaii (46 per 10,000), California (41 per 10,000), and Oregon (35 per 10,000) also have rates of homelessness well above the national average.
Homelessness in the United States began growing rapidly in the 1980s. Major causes of the rise in homelessness include: the introduction of crack cocaine, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill from state mental health institutions, an increase in family breakdown, and rising housing costs.
The “Housing First” approach is costly and has failed to help the homeless overcome their problems. While Housing First keeps people stably housed, it generally fails to address other problems, like addiction and mental illness. Housing First policies have also failed to substantially reduce overall rates of homelessness.
Policy reforms should address the underlying causes of homelessness. The Federal government should stop prioritizing Housing First as the solution to homelessness and focus on approaches that lead to improved well-being, including addiction recovery, mental health, and employment. Local policymakers should ensure the homeless are not left on the streets but are connected with services, shelters, and psychiatric care. Reforming foster care policy so more children are connected with permanent homes, improving data collection on homelessness, and reducing arbitrary regulations that stand in the way of housing construction are also important tools for addressing homelessness.