A guest post by Aaron Carr.
What I see with a lot of these comments is that there's a fundamental disagreement with what the problem of homelessness actually is. It seems like a lot of advocacy groups and policy wonks approach it from the perspective of the problem is that a lot of people don't have reliable shelter and personal spaces. That is the problem from the perspective of people experiencing homelessness.
For most regular people who aren't homeless and don't have close acquaintances who are homeless, that's not the problem at all! The problem is that regular people going about their lives encounter unhygienic individuals who seem to be on drugs or have mental illnesses and are frightening and potentially dangerous to interact with or even have in your proximity. That is the problem that this sub-set of homeless people are creating for non-homeless people. Homeless people who aren't like that are not part of "the homeless problem" and one might in a general sense wish their situation were better, but their problems are their own, not everyone else's problem.
And yes, you could say that solving the first problem by reducing the cost of housing will eventually impact the second problem, but the scary, unhygienic, mentally ill people that are the "the homeless problem" will be among the last people to come off the streets. It's a "bank shot" solution that promises that solving this first problem that is not that important for many regular people will eventually over a long period of time help with the second problem that is important to non-homeless people. Normally that sort of "bank shot" is the hallmark of conservative policy solutions. "You see, if we cut taxes that will spur innovation and create a more productive society which will raise the standard of living and in the end everyone will be better off than if we had kept the tax money and used it on public assistance" If you don't find that convincing, you might consider why "if we reduce the cost of housing then all the scary, smelly people will no longer be in public spaces" isn't very convincing.
Of course I think reducing the cost of housing would benefit a lot of people who aren't homeless, but then you can sell it that way rather than making a bunch of promises about how it will get unhygienic people who are alarming to interact with out of public spaces.
Makes sense to me. I think we have to ask ourselves what is visible versus what is.
Back in the 90's, I remember a census was done of 'subway beggers'. That used to be a big thing in NYC and while one might guess most were homeless, that may or may not have been the case. Anyway, people thought the number of subway panhandlers would be in the thousands, maybe even tens of thousands. When the census was done, it was absurdly low, like 75 people or so! The impression of their large numbers came from the fact that they rode the subways all day so were visible for millions of people day in day out.
Likewise the mentally ill homeless person can draw a lot of attention. In NJ we had an infamous homeless person who was kicked out of the library and got a large settlement...only to remain homeless and harass people on the street.
But the person who may work changing tires or at Wal-Mart who may sleep in their car or crash on a friends couch or use his shower in the morning maybe far more common and much less visible to the general public because he isn't begging on the street or exhibiting mental illness in public.
"And while mental health and drug addiction aren’t lead factors in homelessness (the vast majority of homelessness is temporary..."
This article is pure bait and switch. The primary moral/policy concern in the context of homelessness is chronic homelessness, i.e. the people losing fingers in the winter or defecating on the sidewalk, the people who are trapped long-term on the streets. And for this population the conventional wisdom is correct, i.e. their main problems are mental illness and drugs/alcohol. And your attempts to "debunk" this view are based on stats that conflate chronic homelessness with the less serious (but numerically common) problem of temporary homelessness (e.g. people temporarily living in their car or living for a stint in a shelter), in order to mislead people into thinking that lowering home prices is going to make any kind of serious dent into the suffering and harm associated with people living their lives on the streets.
This counters the lived experience of every New York City resident for good reason. In reality there are two types of homeless: sheltered and unsheltered. Housing First will fix the urban homeless living in shelters (70% of all urban homeless according to an estimate I saw). But the visible problem of thousands of moaning and twitching homeless lying on sidewalks won’t be solved by Housing First.
" Or to put it another way, while 33% of the homeless population suffers from mental illness, nearly 100% of the homeless population can’t afford housing. 100% is a much bigger number than 33%. Which is why mental health, while a factor in homelessness, cannot possibly or statistically be a lead factor."
Love this line of reasoning. E.g. "while xyz% of lung cancer patients are smokers, 100pct of them have cancer. 100pct is a larger number than xyz, which is why smoking, while a factor in lung cancer, cannot possibly or statistically be a lead factor."
I know what author is trying to say (and may even agree on the substance, particularly the bidirectional thesis that causality flows other way) but this phrasing is beyond awkward.
Also my main concern isnt whether drugs or mental issues cause homelessness or reverse, u suspect as author does that good proportion is latter. But that doesnt mean that by providing housing the mental issues and drug problems just melt away - much more likely to see wiring and sinks ripped out of walls in short order to raise cash for drugs for instance.
Based on my experiences I think there may be a slight problem with how the above analysis looks at homelessness. It is similar to the problem with how people look at incarceration. If you look at the incident or individual level you see a ton of drug arrests or survey homeless individuals and find that they as a group their issues are caused by reasons other than drugs/mental health.
However, both those groups move through their respective systems quickly (arrests for drug users general little or no jail time and individuals who homelessness is due to financial or other non-mental health issues stay homeless a short time). Their respective impacts on the systems are minimal.
What drives incarceration are long-term incarceration for violent crime (here is a quick article:
https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/5/30/15591700/mass-incarceration-john-pfaff-locked-in). This is due to the longer sentences people receive for violent crimes. In the case of homeless individuals' it is a group who are called "service resistant" (i.e., difficult to provide services to, primarily due to, you guessed it, substance abuse and/or mental health) that drives most of the population. As the post points out they are a relatively small portion of all homeless but have a huge impact because they stay unhoused for long periods.
Here is mental experiment that illustrates this. Assume you survey 10 people who are unhoused. Nine are no service resistant and can be housed, on average, in 30 days. If one service resistant subject is unhoused for a year, their total nights unhoused exceeds the other nine combined. This is what happens in the incarceration analysis. Drug arrests dwarf other arrest in total numbers but in terms of actual jail beds, they do not drive a substantial portion of total prisoners (when you see a large portion of prisoners being held for drug crimes it is because you are looking at federal Bureau of Prison data, not data on all prisoners).
Finally, the service resistant individuals tend to gravitate to areas such as the west coast, New York, etc. where there are lots of services available to unhoused homeless individuals. This is anecdotal based on working with those populations however, so take it is just my opinion.
I think the problem with both the mass incarceration arguments and the homelessness argument from this post is that it offers hope in that it makes the problem look more manageable (just stop arresting people for drugs was the mass incarceration argument, and it is not accurate). In terms of h homelessness, most systems already do a good job of housing individuals open to and capable of taking advantage of them. This group is already a sort of revolving door, they go into and out of homelessness irregularly and their issues are solvable with money. Long-term, service resistant homelessness is a much tougher nut to crack, makes for a politically worse argument (i.e., many, possibly most, are substance abusers, often criminally involved and much less sympathetic to the lay person), and often have issues that leads to them being evicted or otherwise removed from housing when the are housed.
I don't see how mixing the chronic homeless with the temporary homeless together as one cohort is useful. Of course the person sleeping in their car because they got evicted from their apartment is going to benefit from cheap and plentiful housing; it hardly needs to be said. Where is the evidence that all the chronic homeless need is a cheap home?
If the cause of homelessness is rents that are too high, then why does the solution have to be building more housing in San Francisco and New York (two of the most expensive places to build on the entire planet)?
Why isn’t the solution to relocate homeless people from SF and NY to Detroit, where as you say, housing is cheap and plentiful?
If you have, say, $100 million to devote towards mitigating homelessness, which approach would help the most people?
This is a well-explained article on the causes of homelessness. However, this article does not do a good job in examining how homelessness contributes to the erosion of quality of life in progressive cities with large homeless populations.
True, mental health problems may not be the cause of homelessness, but there is a big difference to a citizen in a large city when the homeless person camped outside your house is a mentally-sane person and when they have severe schizophrenia and scream all night. The same reasoning applies to heavy drug users as well (especially those that use meth).
Yes, building vastly more homes would almost certainly eliminate homelessness as a large-scale problem. But that would take years even if we removed all housing constraints immediately and right now(!), I live in a city where people in near-permanent states of psychosis wander around screaming endlessly and there is nothing citizens can do. Likewise, I live in a city where homeless people can camp immediately outside the door to my apartment on public property and smoke meth and the police will do nothing if called.
So yes, the author is correct. But he is wrong to treat concerns about mental health and drug addiction among homeless populations so flippantly.
Great post. Regarding progressive policies - many of the policies which create a scarcity of housing in CA (my home state) are progressive. So, while lots of public monetary benefit doesn't necessarily increase homelessness, I think a serious argument could be made that progressive policy with respect to development, and particularly the cost to develop, land in CA does exacerbate the homeless problem.
“Everything you know is wrong” titles manage to be not just smug and condescending but hackneyed as well.
Curious why more people aren't relocating to places with affordable housing instead of becoming homeless?
Thank you. I feel like I'm losing my mind talking about homelessness with people in California. Another claim I've heard many many times is that other states are bussing homeless people here (typically diabolical red states of course). People would literally prefer to come up with a silly conspiracy than admit that a 1 bedroom apartment costing $2000-$3000 might be the problem.
I think this is a great post. Thank you!
I want to add a modification thaty does not challenge the basic argument, but does affect one component. I live in a state with a very low homelessness rate (and, statewide, low rents . . . but also low wages). My town is a progressive enclave in this conservative state. The city's policies are relatively supportive of the homeless (we have two apartment buildings constructed on a Housing First model), and we have a range of non-profits that expand the range of shelters and services available.
The result has been an undeniable in-migration from elsewhere in the state. Since housing here is costly compared to elsewhere in the state (which is a national pattern with the urban/liberal, rural/conservative divide), these arrivals have less chance of finding affordable housing than they did before they came, although they have better chances of finding shelter and services, and it does appear (impressionistically) that a high percentage of those folks arrive with psychiatric and addiction problems. So on this level, local conservatives here are not wrong when they attribute the origins of our *local* homelessness problem to "progressive" policies.
(A related issue is that family and individual homelessness seem to be significantly different phenomena. A high proportion of our local-resident homeless problem concerns families, and there the problems seem to combine both shortages of affordable housing and a host of social issues pertaining to family dysfunctionality.)
So I think that while Mr. Carr's analysis is persuasive from a fifty-thousand foot perspective--and I'm convinced it points to the key element of a national approach: prioritizing fast and widespread housing construction in high rent counties--when you examine the issue as we live it now, the uneven distributions and clustered patterns of homelessness will alter the salience of many of these points.
I've been waiting since June 2022 for a permit to build an 8 by 12 foot basic deck in my own back yard. I have resubmitted plans repeatedly, secured a variance (with all the neighbors chiming in and agreeing to the plan), and hired a retired person from the office to help push it through. I haven't been able to sell my house, which I need to do to move closer to family since I'm retired. Nine months calling and waiting for a stupid permit when you're retired is a long time. I can't imagine the hoops you'd have to jump through for anything larger. If you want to know why there is a housing crisis, here's a bureaucratic nightmare in much smaller scale. (This is Prince George's County, Maryland)
A related cause of homelessness seems to be regulations on what type of housing is legal. It used to be more common for people to be able to rent a small room in a home or a building. But zoning regulations have reduced that practice in many cities. As laws & regulations have increased requirements for minimum housing standards, more people have been pushed into tents. So those lucky enough to afford the minimum legally allowed housing may be better off, but there are going to be people pushed into the street by those regs. Removing or reducing those regs would increase the available supply.