By Emel Akan
Homelessness in the United States has increased dramatically over the last decade and is now at crisis levels in many major cities. It is also one of the most pressing issues among voters in many communities right now.
According to a new study by the Discovery Institute, the overall number of homeless people across the country is approaching 1.2 million, far greater than the half-million figure typically cited by media outlets.
Even before COVID-19, homelessness was on the rise despite huge increases in government welfare spending, the report says.
Robert Marbut, Jr., a renowned expert on homelessness and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, believes that before the federal government can effectively combat the problem of homelessness, it must first understand the root causes.
At a luncheon in Washington on Oct. 12, Marbut presented his new research titled, “How Congress Can Reform Government’s Misguided Homelessness Policies.” He argued that homelessness should be treated primarily as a mental and behavioral health issue rather than a housing issue.
Marbut was also the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness under former President Donald Trump from 2019 to 2021.
At the heart of the homelessness problem, according to Marbut, is the “Housing First” policy, which provides homeless people with unconditional access to subsidized housing. This policy has been the main approach for the government to address homelessness in the last 20 years.
Advocates of the Housing First strategy believe that permanent housing is the best way to address the problem, and that all homeless people should get housing right away, without any conditions.
According to critics, the Obama administration adopted Housing First as a one-size-fits-all solution in 2013, which has seen the homelessness problem get worse. As part of his strategic plan to tackle the problem, former President Barack Obama pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015, chronic homelessness by 2017, and family homelessness by 2020.
“The results have been disastrous,” Marbut says.
Marbut contends that the “Housing First” approach has, in practice, turned into a “housing only” solution. The policy has had negative consequences, such as the removal of requirements for the homeless to participate in effective support programs and therapies, as well as the elimination of federal funding for wraparound services for treating addiction and mental health problems.
“By ignoring the root causes of homelessness—such as untreated mental illness combined with substance use disorders—Housing First is, at best, an expensive short-term band-aid that only addresses the symptom of an individual’s living on the street,” Marbut stated in the report.
Over the five years prior to the onset of the COVID-19, the number of unsheltered individuals suffering homelessness surged by more than 20 percent, even as subsidized housing vouchers increased over 40 percent, according to the report.
The paper purposefully excludes any post-COVID figures to demonstrate that the problem existed prior to the pandemic. The report also states that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “artificially lowers” the number of homeless people by excluding those living in rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing.
Dispute Over the Cause
In recent years, Marbut has come under fire for rejecting Housing First by those who believe that the fundamental cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. They argue that mental health issues are just a small part of the problem.
Advocates also defend “a flexible approach,” stating that the security of a home will assist homeless people to succeed in treatment, jobs, education, and health.
A Manhattan Institute study, however, found that Housing First did a poor job of addressing serious mental illness and drug addiction, as well as assisting homeless people find employment and overcome social isolation.
According to the California Policy Lab, a nonpartisan research center at the University of California, 78 percent of the unsheltered homeless population reported having mental health conditions, and 50 percent said their mental health conditions led to their loss of housing. Furthermore, 75 percent of the unsheltered population indicated substance abuse conditions, and 51 percent said that using drugs or alcohol contributed to their homelessness. These findings were based on an analysis of more than 64,000 surveys conducted in 2019.
And California has been the “perfect experiment” for Housing First, according to Marbut, because all federal and state homeless assistance funds go solely to the program. Despite this, homelessness in the state has been rising faster than the national average.
Marbut says there are more deaths among the homeless on the streets each day than there have been American troops killed overseas.
Bruce Chapman, founder and head of the Discovery Institute, compared the situation to the dismal social conditions depicted in Charles Dickens’ novels.
“It’s Dickensian; it goes back to the kind of things you saw in the 18th and 19th centuries,” Chapman said at the luncheon. He urged the new Congress to reform the broken policies of the federal government.
Although homelessness is most noticeable in America’s largest cities, it is also a growing problem in rural areas, he noted.