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Wealth & Poverty Review The Problem With “Housing First” According to Baum and Burnes

Housing First is the philosophy that homelessness is first and foremost a problem that will be solved by affordable housing. Before any other need can be addressed, a person experiencing homelessness must be housed. California and other jurisdictions throw millions of taxpayer dollars into Housing First policies as a homelessness cure-all. But is it a cure-all? Is homelessness merely an economic issue?

In 1993, A Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness by Alice S. Baum and Donald W. Burnes was published. Though the statistics are now nearly 30 years out of date, the insights into homelessness remain relevant. Having worked among the homeless in D.C. for many years, Baum and Burnes shed light on the complexities of homelessness — how addictions, mental illness, and trauma trap people in mindsets and lifestyles that housing alone will not solve.

Following is an excerpt from chapter eight of A Nation in Denial, addressing the problems with the Housing First approach to solving homelessness.

Those who argue that the lack of affordable housing is the primary cause of homelessness imply that the main problem confronting the homeless is their lack of resources to participate in the American housing market, either because they cannot earn enough money or because the cost of housing is beyond their reach. For those who take this position, the solution is simple — provide housing that does not overtax their financial resources. One way of testing the effectiveness of such a solution is to examine what would happen if housing units for all the homeless were provided. On one level, of course, the problem would be solved and homelessness would be eliminated; all the homeless would now be living in their own houses. The real question is how long the problem would stay solved.

The story of Jacqueline Williams, the woman with fourteen children who obtained housing from Washington, D.C., authorities after appearing on “The Donahue Show,” provides some indication of the answer. Mrs. Williams’ family needed much more than housing. They were not able to maintain the housing that was provided, child welfare officials eventually removed her children under the age of eighteen to foster care, and after one year’s occupancy, the house was condemned as being unfit for human habitation. Further evidence is provided by statements from others who have studied or worked with homeless people. The New York City Commission on the Homeless reported in their 1992 study that fully half of all homeless families placed in permanent housing returned to the shelter system. The social worker at the Capitol City Motor Inn in Washington, D.C., reported similar recidivism rates for families placed in housing.

In short, simply providing housing is not the primary solution to the problem of homelessness because the lack of affordable housing is not the primary cause. Without help for their many disabling conditions, most of the homeless will continue to be unable to maintain themselves in permanent housing. The futility of simply providing housing is underscored by the data about the long-term chronicity of homelessness among the single homeless population and its episodic nature. Those disabled by addictions and mental illness or both, who drift in and out of homelessness, staying intermittently in shelters, hospitals, jails, detox units, transitional programs, and back on the streets in a continuous cycle, are particularly at risk of not being able to maintain independent housing.

We are not suggesting that the issue of housing is irrelevant to the homeless. Instead, we would argue that policymakers and the public must address the disabilities that make maintaining stable housing impossible before making the issue of affordable housing the central issue for today’s homeless. Appropriate, affordable, and often specialized housing for homeless people with different types of problems will eventually be required; before then, space in various types of treatment programs, followed by structured living arrangements that support continued recovery, where appropriate, are necessary. It is only when individuals have made substantial progress in overcoming their disabilities that independent living in affordable housing will become relevant.

Focusing solely on affordable housing without first addressing the disabling conditions on the vast majority of the homeless is analogous to simply providing a walking cane to someone who has suffered a broken foot without first resetting the bones in the foot and encasing the foot in a cast. In the case of a broken foot, the use of a cane is only appropriate after the broken bones have been treated; providing a cane without first treating the broken bones will only make future recovery more difficult. In the case of homelessness, permanent, affordable housing is appropriate only after the immediate disabling conditions that prevent independent living have been treated. Failure to treat the disabling conditions will only make recovery from them and emergency from homelessness more difficult. In the meantime, the indiscriminate call for affordable housing, especially when it is used by advocates as an “opening wedge” to solve all of America’s housing problems, is not helpful.

Alice S. Baum and Donald W. Burnes, A Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993, 137-138.

Caitlin Cory

Communications Coordinator, Discovery Institute
Caitlin Cory is the Communications Coordinator for Discovery Institute. She has previously written for Discovery on the topics of homelessness and mental illness, as well as on Big Tech and its impact on human freedom. Caitlin grew up in the Pacific Northwest, graduated from Liberty University in 2017 with her Bachelor's in Politics and Policy, and now lives in Maryland with her husband.