How Cities Got Serious About Homelessness in 2016

Places like Los Angeles and Seattle are all radically rethinking what it means to provide shelter to their residents.

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Dec 26 2016, 12:59pm

Photo via Flickr user Jack

In a lot of ways, 2016 gave us a raw deal: the year Prince and David Bowie and George Michael died, the year of zika and Brexit, the year America elected a reality star to its highest office. But it might also be remembered as the year cities across the country started to get serious about tackling homelessness.

In November, voters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland all approved measures to raise millions of dollars for either affordable housing or permanent supportive housing for the thousands of people living and sleeping on the streets. All of those cities are in the midst of radically rethinking solutions to their respective homelessness crises, which are among the worst in the country.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson, LA council member and the co-author of the $1.2 billion bond measure overwhelmingly approved in that city, told me homelessness has become so pervasive that voters were convinced the problem should be fought, even if it meant paying higher taxes.

"It doesn't matter what part of the city you live in. If you drive on a freeway, you're going to see homelessness," he said. "It's not an issue where it's over there and [you] don't see it and don't have to worry about it."

The bond, which takes a cut from homeowners' property taxes, will help fund the construction of an estimated 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing—residences that offer on-site services such as healthcare, counseling, and job training—as well as affordable housing throughout the city. Those are sorely needed resources: Last month, the federal government reported that LA had the highest number of people who are chronically homeless for the second year in a row, amid a general shortage of housing.

"Everybody feels the housing crunch in LA really at every income level," said Harris-Dawson. "So I think people have some sympathy with how hard it is to find a decent place to live in the city and how easy it is to end up on the street."

For decades, local governments have thrown money at the worsening problem, building homeless shelters and handing out vouchers for food and rent. But increasingly, the cities hit the hardest by homelessness are being forced to reconsider simply providing food and shelter as a means to end a full-blown crisis. Instead, they're looking to new models for advocacy, many of which knock down the barriers to housing and combine shelter with desperately needed services like education and counseling.

"This is a huge problem. It's unconscionable," Barbara Poppe, a former Obama administration staffer who served as executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, told me of the crisis in Seattle. "You have children living in cars, you have babies in cars."

At least 4,500 adults and children were unsheltered on the streets of Seattle's King County this year—a 19 percent increase over last year and a 40 percent total increase over 2014, according to the annual One Night Count, in which volunteers tally homeless people on a given night of the year in cities across the country.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who runs the city where a majority of King County's homeless population is concentrated, acknowledged these statistics in an ambitious new plan that shifts the city's focus from temporary emergency interventions to long-term solutions for creating more permanent housing for the homeless. In an introduction to the plan posted on the city's website, he admitted that the city had gotten it radically wrong in its short-sighted approach—at the expense of taxpayers' money and homeless people's lives.

That's part of the reason why this year he hired Poppe to figure out how to maximize that $50 million annual investment in homeless services. Her primary recommendations took a so-called "housing-first" approach, in which housing itself is seen as the means to end homelessness. Whereas traditional advocacy models often require that homeless people complete mental health or drug and alcohol treatment programs before entering housing, the housing-first approach, as the name implies, means housing is the first—not the last—step in the process.

"Housing-first turned everything upside down and changed the priorities and the way things are happening," Poppe said of the relatively new approach, adopted by the US Department of Veterans' Affairs in 2012. "By providing the stability of a home, folks can improve their health outcomes, they can get back to work, kids do better at school, all myriad of things occur when folks have access to housing."

But not everyone's a fan of the housing-first strategy. In New York City, the current administration has faced criticism for shuttling thousands of homeless people to rented hotel rooms when the shelters are overcrowded.

"No one will say it, but shelters have become a surrogate for low-income housing in America," Ralph da Costa Nuñez, president of the New York City-based think tank Institute for Children and Poverty, told me. "We don't build enough low-income housing, but we build shelters overnight—everywhere."

He believes that homelessness isn't a housing issue, but one that's contributed to by social factors including domestic violence, mental illness, and lack of education. "The problem is we simply take people who come to shelters and they say, 'Oh I lost my house.' The issue is, why did you lose your housing?" said Nuñez, who previously worked for Koch mayoral administration in the 1980s. "The more you dig, the more you find out what these issues are."

Research published last year by the Institute for Children and Poverty found, for example, that one in four families with children in the New York City shelter system entered because of domestic violence and one in ten teen parents within the New York City Department of Education's daycare program for student parents became homeless after the birth of their first child. One in five teen parents surveyed at the same daycare had been homeless at some point in the past five years.

New York City is still struggling to contain its shelter population, which has surged to 60,000—an 18 percent increase over roughly the last three years—according to the most recent city count. At the same time, city spending on homeless services nearly doubled over the last two years, with the 2016 budget estimated at $1.7 billion. Critics like Nuñez say the city's homeless plan needs a dramatic overhaul — and he's hoping to do just that, at least independently, by creating his own prototype.

Through the Institute for Children and Poverty, he expects to open what he calls a privately-funded "shelter of the future" (though it's hardly just a shelter, he insists)—featuring 100 residences, a culinary arts training program, and a community center—within the next two years in the Bronx.

On the other side of the country, Los Angeles is already on track to fund housing solutions that offer on-site social workers and individualized services, from substance abuse treatment to transitional help after leaving foster care or prison. "It's a departure from the shelters strategy, because it's our finding in Los Angeles that shelters just kind of reproduce homelessness, and people cycle through them," Harris-Dawson told me.

He said the city's now working closely and aggressively with the county, which last week voted to place a new sales tax funding homelessness services on the March ballot.

For advocates like Nuñez, initiatives that combine both housing and services are an obvious solution to a massive, complex problem. "How do I spend money? Just throw it all over the place, or do I concentrate it in one facility that really works for the neighborhood and works for the families that are homeless?" he said. "It's not rocket science. To me, it's the simplest thing in the world."

Follow Jennifer Swann on Twitter.

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