In the shadow of sequestration and increasingly constrained public sector resources, the goal of ending family homelessness seems to move continually further out of reach.
In the shadow of sequestration and increasingly constrained public sector resources, the goal of ending family homelessness seems to move continually further out of reach. Even without new budget cuts, the numbers are daunting: Today, public housing subsidies are not available for more than three-quarters of the Americans who could benefit from supports that would make the rents in their communities affordable. To stay housed, many of these individuals and families are paying far more than the target of 30% of their incomes for rent. For more than 1.5 million Americans every year, homelessness results when keeping the housing you have is simply no longer possible.
We know that the way to end homelessness is to house everyone, and ensuring everyone has a place to call home requires a housing supply that is affordable to all, regardless of their incomes. The simplicity of this argument seems well suited to a freshman college logic course.
I wish the reality was that simple. In the current economic environment, the option of “building our way out of homelessness” (and linking every tenant to the services and supports they need to stay housed) is no longer feasible as the sole strategy to ending family homelessness– if it even ever was. The the billions and billions of dollars required for that approach are not, and likely will not, be available in the foreseeable future.
This requires us to think more broadly about what we mean when we say ending homelessness is all about housing. We need to expand our conversation – and our activities – to include at least five different components to that freshman logic class argument. These include:
- Increase resources for capital projects & subsidies (build more housing, add more subsidies): This traditional approach to ending homelessness must remain a top priority. Vehicles like Housing Trust Funds, Housing Levies, tax credits, Section 8 vouchers and other tools are essential to continuing to increase the stock of affordable housing.
- Make best use of the existing stock of subsidized housing: The public housing resources we currently have – including public and transitional housing and housing vouchers are a limited and precious resource that must consistently be prioritized for the best possible uses in every local community.
- Increase the use of market rate housing: We’ve only begun to tap into the potential uses of the private rental housing stock in communities across the nation through such tools as short and intermediate term subsidies and rapid re-housing. These promising practices appear to work effectively than more traditional approaches for many highly vulnerable families.
- Integrate existing subsidized and public housing with mainstream systems: Creating service-enhanced housing opportunities through partnerships with the child welfare providers, the workforce and employment systems, and even public school districts offer pathways to both increased housing stability and mobility as families stabilize and incomes increase over time.
- Promote “housing as health care:” As the Affordable Care Act moves forward, we must make the case that housing stability actually promotes wellness, as well as efficiencies in the health care system that can help contain costs over time.
Housing is, and will remain, the essential platform upon which we build healthy and productive lives for ourselves and our children. It remains a critical component in the work of interrupting the cycles of poverty that can reach across generations. The argument from the freshman logic course isn’t flawed, it’s just an oversimplification.
While the concept that ending homelessness means housing everyone is helpful, we must be sure to understand the complexity of the work required to achieve the desired goal.
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.