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Wealth & Poverty Review If Not Housing First, What Is the Solution to Homelessness?

Housing First is the idea and policy that everyone has a right to permanent, affordable housing, and that housing should be provided to the homeless before they are expected to go through any treatment or program for addiction, mental illness, or any other problems that may have contributed to their homelessness in the first place.

This solution is untenable, because housing is too expensive to build for every single homeless person and many people are unable to keep their housing when their underlying addictions or illnesses are not addressed.

But if Housing First isn’t the correct policy to combat homelessness, what is?

To address this question, I’m going to share with you thoughts from Michael Shellenberger, author of San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities. I have been referencing his work frequently because he is one of the clearest and loudest voices at present on the issues of homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health.

In a recent discussion hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Shellenberger explained what the real solution is to getting people off the streets:

Let me start by saying what I think we should do, which is what the Dutch do in Amsterdam, which is that they have sufficient shelter for everybody that needs it. They’ve built sufficient shelter for everybody that needs it, which means they have empty beds at any given time. 

I shadowed a social worker. We found a homeless man trying to sleep on the park bench, and the person I was shadowing said, ‘You can’t — you can’t sleep here. We have a shelter bed for you. Let me take you there.’ It is gray area — we did let the guy sleep there that night, but then he [the social worker] said, ‘I’m going to come back tomorrow and then you really have to go into the shelter.’ 

Everybody has to be sheltered, so that’s a shelter-first policy. You’re saying: You need to be in shelter because it’s not safe on the street. That’s just the basic view of the Dutch and that’s why you don’t see homeless people in Amsterdam.

Then, when you’re in shelter, you would get some evaluation if you need medical care, including psychiatric care, so it’s also treatment-first. And then housing is something that would be earned. What a lot of people want is their own room. They want an apartment, they want their own studio apartment. It’s what everybody wants. I mean, who doesn’t want a studio apartment in Amsterdam? I certainly do. But you have to earn it, and so I saw Rene, who is a character in the book, a Dutch social worker, basically arguing with people who would be like, ‘I want my own room.’ And he would say, ‘You can have your own room, but you’re not taking your meds.’ Or, ‘You can have your own room, but you’re not showing up for your job that we arranged for you and we need you to show up for your job.’ So the housing is earned.

Shelter-first. Treatment-first. Housing is earned. That’s the right way to do it.

Why progressives ruin cities | LIVE STREAM” at the American Enterprise Institute channel on YouTube

He later added:

It’s just really a simplistic idea. The idea is that you need housing to stabilize and to overcome your addiction or mental illness. The truth is that you need shelter for that, but housing really should be earned because it is expensive, it is a reward for making progress on your personal plan.

Why progressives ruin cities | LIVE STREAM” at the American Enterprise Institute channel on YouTube

Housing First is failing San Francisco. It’s clear in the numbers alone. Just look, for instance, at Shellenberger’s Substack article posted yesterday, in which he discussed San Francisco’s homelessness problem with a homeless service provider in the city who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution for his comments.

The main progressive approach for addressing homelessness, not just in San Francisco but in progressive cities around the nation, is “Housing First,” which is the notion that taxpayers should give, no questions asked, apartment units to anyone who says they are homeless, and asks for one. What actually works to reduce the addiction that forces many people onto the streets is making housing contingent on abstinence. But Housing First advocates oppose “contingency management,” as it’s called, because, they say, “Housing is a right,” and it should not be conditioned upon behavior change. 

But such a policy is absurdly unrealistic, said the San Francisco homeless expert. “To pretend that this city could build enough permanent supportive housing for every homeless person who needs it is ludicrous,” the person said. “I wish it weren’t. I wish I lived in a land where there was plenty of housing. But now people are dying on our streets and it feels like we’re not doing very much about it.”

The underlying problem with Housing First is that it enables addiction. “The National Academies of Sciences review [which showed that giving people apartments did not improve health or other life outcomes] you cited shows that. San Francisco has more permanent supportive housing units per capita than any other city, and we doubled spending on homelessness, but the homeless population rose 13%, even as it went down in the US. And so we doubled our spending and the problem got worse. But if you say that, you get attacked.”

The compassionate approach is not to pour more money into apartment buildings that will house only a fraction of the homeless, and in the meantime let the homeless wallow and die in the streets. The compassionate approach is the one brought to us from Amsterdam via Shellenberger: Shelter the homeless. Get them off the streets and offer them treatment. Remove them from open air drug scenes and provide them medicine for their untreated mental illnesses.

According to Shellenberger, Amsterdam has seen wonderful success. Perhaps we should take note and change our direction.