In December 2019, when COVID-19 was only a distant rumor from foreign shores, the Trump administration switched up its homelessness strategy. Since 2013, the federal policy had been Housing First — the idea that first and foremost, those suffering from homelessness should be placed in permanent, subsidized housing without preconditions.
Dr. Robert Marbut was brought in as the new Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). But only a few months after his appointment to the position, COVID-19 had spread across the globe and federal priorities shifted. As a result, plans to tackle homelessness were brought to a near-hault, and the two groundbreaking reports on homelessness published by the USICH under Dr. Marbut’s direction, attempting to steer the country in a new direction, did not get the attention they deserve.
In my first conversation with Dr. Marbut this past December, he spoke with great optimism about the future of solving homelessness despite the challenges. So I called him back to ask more about that optimism. He told me he’s hopeful because after almost ten years, people are beginning to wake up to the failures of Housing First, and are exploring solutions that really do work.
Housing First was a concept first introduced at local levels in the 1980s. Pursued by the George W. Bush administration, it was finally made national policy under the Obama administration in 2013. At the time, Housing First advocates boldly declared that with this new federal policy in place, homelessness would be eliminated within ten years.
Those ten years are up next year, in 2023. And the homelessness crisis has only worsened, especially in those places where Housing First has been most enthusiastically embraced. Nationally, unsheltered homelessness increased 20.5% between 2014 and 2019, from 175,399 to 211,293. And in California, the most Housing First-oriented state in the country, unsheltered homelessness increased 47.1%. All of this despite massive spending and building efforts to house those without a permanent home.
Why is this? According to Dr. Marbut, “If you don’t deal with the real root cause, housing won’t stick.” Those root causes include severe mental illness and drug addiction, conditions that a roof alone won’t solve.
Looking Toward the Future with Hope
With all of these bleak statistics, why is Marbut so hopeful?
“I’m optimistic that the general public looks out the window and says, ‘Well, I have people on my corner that I’ve never had before.’ I’m optimistic that at least at the local level, mayors and city managers are starting to look at their local data and say, ‘What we did is not working.'”
Indeed, citizens, mayors and city managers, and agencies are all beginning to say, “This doesn’t work,” and demanding that something new be done. Sadly, the last party to figure it out, Marbut told me, will be the federal government.
But even at the federal level, a few movers and shakers on both sides of the aisle are making noise about the issue. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Representative Andy Barr of Kentucky are two such leaders – well-informed on the issue and highly motivated to make change happen.
Three Steps to Meaningfully Reduce Homelessness
What steps can be taken toward solving the problem? Dr. Marbut spoke of three key changes to correct the missteps of Housing First: 1) tie treatment and recovery back into housing, 2) reform the continuum of care network, and 3) change the measurement of homelessness.
1: Tie treatment and recovery back into housing
“[I]f you don’t tie treatment and recovery to housing, the housing will never stick,” said Marbut. “We see that over and over and over. It never takes, it never works. People recycle and recidivize. It just doesn’t work. So first and foremost, we have to bring treatment and recovery back.”
Marbut is right. According to a study conducted by medical experts at Harvard, retention rates in Housing First programs drop dramatically after just one year. At 10 years, only 12% of rehoused individuals remained in housing.
Tying treatment and recovery requirements back into housing means dedicating funds toward treating severe mental illnesses and substance use disorder.
2: Reform the continuum of care network
Continuums of care (COC) are local administrators of homeless services over a specific city, county, metropolitan area, or state. Marbut explained to me that a problem with continuums of care is they are not presently accountable to their local jurisdictions. That needs to change. “They should always be chaired by a local elected official who’s accountable to the local citizens,” he explained.
In addition to being chaired by a local elected official, Marbut suggested six others that should make up every single continuum of care in the nation: the top county official, the sheriff, the highest populated city mayor, the foremost mental health authority, the police chief from the greatest populated city, and the head of the local workforce development.
3: Change the measurement of homelessness
Marbut is the founder of Haven for Hope in San Antonio, a program that lifts people out of homelessness through trauma-informed care, personalized treatment for mental illness and drug addiction, and other services like employment, education, and life-skills training. People are provided short-term housing in conjunction with services to improve their lives.
But according to Marbut, those who live onsite and receive services from Haven for Hope are still counted among the “unsheltered homeless.” Why is that? Marbut explained to me that the federal government only measures a successful transition from homelessness into housing as someone who has a permanent supportive house or a voucher.
In the federal government’s eyes, if it’s not accomplished through Housing First, it’s not success. That needs to change.
What Can YOU Do?
What can ordinary citizens do, faced with the crisis on their own streets?
First, Marbut encourages people to contact their local elected officials and tell them they want change. Be vocal.
Second, local agencies are always in need of volunteers. And you don’t necessarily need special training in mental health services or drug addiction treatment to get involved. Well-known organizations like The Salvation Army, rescue missions, and food banks are great places to look for volunteering opportunities. But Marbut also mentioned lesser-known ones, such as Family Promise (a non-profit serving families experiencing homelessness across the country) and City Gate Network (a nationwide collection of faith-based homeless shelters and programs).
“There’s a place for everybody,” Marbut said. “And I get that until you get out of COVID, it’s sort of going to be a little hard. But as we’re slowly moving out of COVID, you’ve got everything from preparing meals to working in the food pantry to helping the food banks.”
Despite the bleak statistics, there is hope. In fact, it is precisely because of the bleak statistics that hope may exist. As people acknowledge what has failed, the pathway toward true solutions is wide open for exploration.