Ending Homelessness Together #3 — Don’t They Want To Be Homeless?
I have called homelessness “the stupid problem” because all it takes to end it is to give someone a home. “But,” you say, “Don’t most of them want to be homeless?”
If you have ever asked a person on the streets if they would rather be housed, and they answer, “no”, dig deeper. I have heard some (particularly young people) say, “I don’t want to pay rent;” or, “There are too many rules in housing;” or, “I have a fear of closed-in places.” But, when I dug deeper, I found that the story of pain, disappointment, poor treatment by others, and fear are the primary issues. I don’t believe anyone WANTS to be without a place to call home. For some, the freedom to camp where they want, may be alluring and empowering. For others, living in a home alone is terrifying. For others, the high cost of rent (even if it’s only 1/3 of their income) is just too much to face. Should we just let these people live on our streets, in our riverbeds, or along our railroad tracks? Do they have a right to be homeless?
I would argue that housing and a home are both human rights, and ensure the welfare of individuals and the public. So, the answer is finding a housing opportunity for every person that meets each person’s needs. This may sound utopian, but the reality is that we have a vast network of social service programs, food providers, alcohol and drug treatment providers, and supportive housing options to help people. And, for those who just need some money for rent — those programs exist too! Let’s look at the main programs today.
- Rental Assistance — for many homeless people, just having first, last, or a couple of months rent is the difference. Long term vouchers (used to be called section 8) are now called Housing Choice Vouchers (procured from a housing authority waiting list), or Tenant-Based Rental Assistance (often from cities and counties). Even easier to get (if you’re homeless) is Rapid Rehousing funding — Each city in the US now has millions (yes millions) of dollars for rental assistance that will pay first/last month’s rent, security or utility deposits, furnishing costs, etc. This is currently the best thing going in fighting homelessness, and it needs to be clearer and easier to access for the hundreds of thousands of people on the streets.
- Landlord Incentive Programs — If you have ever been a landlord, did you have sleepless nights worrying about whether your tenants could pay? Did you ever have to evict someone? Did you have damage to your property? Imagine a program that found you tenants, insured the rent would be there on time every month, fixed your property or gave you money if there were any damages, helped you with relocation if an eviction was needed, AND paid you a flat rate as an incentive for participating. These programs exist! They are called Landlord Incentive Programs. Santa Barbara County has several including, Partners in Housing Solutions, Lease Up! Santa Barbara, and the Housing Authority Section 8 landlord programs. The only catch is that you have to rent to homeless people, but there is so much support that they might be better tenants than your average joe off the street!
- Affordable Housing — The old days of Public Housing are gone. Now, much of the federal funding for housing goes into privately developed housing by nonprofit developers and housing authorities who combine complicated subsidies, investments, and low-interest debt to create apartments (usually) that are permanently affordable. You have these units in your neighborhood, and you don’t even know it! They tend to be attractive, very well-managed, and pretty much indistinguishable from the other housing in your community — except that they are often better maintained and newer looking. Rents in these projects are fixed at 30% of a person’s income, and go up as people’s incomes go up. Many have on-site programs like child care, senior meals, recreation, libraries, and computer centers.
- Permanent Supportive Housing — For homeless people, particularly people with severe disabilities, or alcohol or drug problems, this model is best. In this model, the rents for the unit are set at 30% of income or less, but services are intensive. Ideally, the services are tailored and comprehensive and might include mental health, drug treatment, physical therapy, case management, legal assistance, etc. Over time, the services are reduced as the person becomes more self-sufficient. In these cases, evictions are prevented by a team of case managers who support the resident and insulate the landlord and surrounding community from any adverse effects from the person’s behavior.
Clearly, there are a lot of tools in the toolbox to end homelessness through permanent housing. In California, federal and local funds have been augmented by billions of new dollars in spending for each county. The trick now, is making these funds work well and target those in need most effectively.
But, do people have a right to be homeless? As I’ve argued, I would say no. I think our housing market needs to be crushed so that housing is not a commodity to be bought and sold at a profit, but that every person has access to some kind of housing at their income level. This can be done with appropriate development, incentives, and new land use planning. But, what about the person who doesn’t want help and wants to be independent?
There is a growing subset of our population who are newly homeless and want to try to make it on their own. There is also a stubborn subset of those who really do want to be “free” and “outside.” For these people we need to make some kind of safe, affordable accommodation, just as we do for people with disabilities. It’s a moral imperative. The sad reality is that without such accommodation, they live in our public spaces — on streets, parks, under bridges and overpasses. So, why NOT designate some space for safe camping or safe parking? Again, it’s a land use issue and a sanitation issue, but both are solvable. It’s stupid that people are living on the sidewalks. It’s unsafe, unhealthy, and a stain on our so-called democracy.
What are the obstacles to new housing or better land use to ensure affordability in your community? Do you have a room or unit that you might rent to a homeless person if you knew you’d be protected and supported? Let’s talk about how to end homelessness together!