Homelessness: a profound assault on dignity, social inclusion and the right to life.

“Homelessness is a profound assault on dignity, social inclusion and the right to life. It is a prima facie violation of the right to housing and violates a number of other human rights in addition to the right to life, including non-discrimination, health, water and sanitation, security of the person and freedom from cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.” – Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing (A/HRC/43/43, para.30)

When looking at homelessness in Missouri, it’s important to go beyond the stereotypes and assumptions about individuals experiencing homelessness, and instead examine the data that is a true representation of the issue. Unfortunately, some legislators continue to spread misinformation about this issue. On March 22nd, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an opinion piece from a lawmaker that is riddled with factual errors and misleading information, so we’ve fact-checked the article extensively and would like to set the record straight. 

Arguments have been made that there is enough housing for those who are homeless and therefore, they are homeless due to untreated substance use and mental health issues. However, while substance use and mental health can contribute to homelessness, the data shows that the main cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing and that permanent supportive housing is an evidenced based solution to addressing homelessness. 

What the article says: 

“Missouri has more subsidized permanent housing for homeless individuals than ever before. Yet the homelessness crisis continues to worsen. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Missouri’s supply of permanent supportive housing (PSH) has increased 70%. This increase was expected to ameliorate the problem, but instead, the state was left with less short-term housing capacity to respond to the homelessness crisis.”

What the data says: 

According to HUD, there were 5,239 units of permanent supportive housing in Missouri in 2013. This number increased by 12% to 5,875 units in 2023. Even with this modest increase, there aren’t enough PSH units for everyone who qualifies. The 2024 Gap Report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) shows that Missouri is short 120,102 affordable units for extremely low-income Missourians. These programs are all funded by the federal government in a block grant. This grant has been underfunded for decades, and after deep cuts between 2011-2017, it has not returned even to the funding level of 2010. This results in as many as 3 out of 4 households who qualify for these programs not receiving assistance.

It should be noted that this data only reflects PSH availability, and does not include Rapid Rehousing (RRH) or Other Permanent Housing (OPH). RRH is a resource to provide housing quickly; the target population are households that have experienced short stints of homelessness and can stabilize quickly. RRH is not a resource for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness or those who need additional support. OPH provides long term housing, but cannot fall under either RRH or PSH. While PSH is for households where at least one member has been diagnosed with a disability, OPH does not require a disability diagnosis. OPH can also be provided with or without supportive services. 

Shelter beds did decrease because funding has been diverted to evidence-based interventions: Housing First and permanent supportive housing. Research shows that permanent supportive housing through Housing First programs decreases homelessness by 88% when compared to “treatment first” models, where individuals must participate in substance abuse treatment or mental health services before qualifying for non-congregate housing. Individuals in crisis struggle to effectively engage in treatment while staying in an encampment or shelter where they may feel unsafe or triggered by their surroundings. 

What the article says: 

“Housing First incentivizes communities to prioritize the creation of so-called permanent supportive housing units over all other responses to homelessness. Permanent supportive housing is a heavily subsidized or even free permanent residence for homeless individuals — from which eviction is nearly impossible.The growth of permanent supportive housing in Missouri has relied in part on repurposing short-term transitional housing, usually dorm-style housing capable of housing multiple individuals at once and helping people reach independence.”

What the data says:

While transitional housing units have decreased by 36% in Missouri between 2014 and 2023, it’s not due to increases in permanent supportive housing alone, which has only had a 3.6% increase during the same period. Decreases in federal funding mean that HUD is going to prioritize the evidence-based programs that are shown to be the most effective at addressing homelessness. 

Housing First benefits outweigh the costs, with research showing that for every $1 spent on Housing First, there is a societal cost savings of $1.44. Economic benefits come from the combined savings in healthcare, judicial services, temporary housing, welfare, disability costs and benefits stemming from increased employment. Experts estimate that somewhere between 40% and 60% of people who are homeless are employed, meaning that once in a Housing First program, they would pay 30% of their income towards rent and utilities. From an economic standpoint, Housing First models provide the best economic benefit for our communities. 

Tenants in PSH are absolutely subject to eviction by their landlords, by the same standards as any other tenant. They are provided a lease with the same obligations as other tenants plus additional requirements set by the housing agency that oversees the tenants’ involvement in the program. Tenants are fully subject to lease violations, eviction from their unit, and termination from the program for non-compliance with their lease and supplemental requirements. 

What the article says: 

“In St. Louis, permanent supportive housing increased by 46 percent between 2013 and 2023, but transitional housing decreased by almost 50 percent during the same period. Since 2015, Missouri went from being capable of providing a short-term bed for 99 percent of homeless individuals to only 44 percent. Even though transitional housing can quickly house multiple individuals at a fraction of the cost, funding for permanent supportive housing continues to increase while transitional shelter funding decreases. These funding decisions have not yielded favorable results for St. Louis and Missouri. In St. Louis city, the number of homeless individuals has increased by 40 percent in the last five years alone. The city has been in dire need of more shelters to protect the homeless from harsh winters that have resulted in individuals freezing to death, according to an investigation by NPR, which found one death per month from freezing from December through March.”

What the data says: 

From 2018 to 2023, homelessness in St. Louis City increased from 949 individuals to 1,252–a 32% increase, which is consistent with increases in homelessness seen across Missouri. Increases in PSH units does outpace the growth of transitional housing units, but this is because PSH is an evidence-based intervention that has been shown to reduce homelessness, improve economic, physical and mental health outcomes, decrease societal costs, and increase engagement in services. From an economic standpoint, PSH is more affordable for communities versus short-term housing, such as emergency shelter. 

Street homelessness is not on the rise because of an over-investment in PSH. Street homelessness is on the rise because of skyrocketing rent costs, putting US homelessness at its highest level on record.

Another issue is that there is a significant underfunding of all housing programs in Missouri. Only 21 out of the 115 counties in Missouri have emergency shelter beds, due in part to lack of funding. The Missouri Housing Trust Fund (MHTF), funded through state recorder deed fees, has not increased from the original $3 fee set in 1994, when the MHTF was established. In 2024, the MHTF received more than $10.7 million in requests from non-profit organizations to provide homeless prevention and emergency services, but were able to award a measly $4,256,715.70. None of this funding goes towards the construction or rehabilitation of permanent supportive housing. 

The lack of shelters is also due to the fact that communities don’t want shelters in their neighborhoods. In Kansas City, Missouri, residents in the Northeast are speaking out against a low-barrier shelter that has been proposed. However, this is not unique to Kansas City and is an ongoing issue for policymakers, direct service providers, and communities who are trying to address the homeless crisis. Which begs the question: where would these large encampments go if there is already so much pushback against shelters and other housing options? 

Emergency shelters are rarely an effective resource to move households into housing, because their focus is on crisis management. This study shows that staying in a temporary shelter provides the same outcomes as remaining on the street, and only 13% of individuals received housing services and support in camps. The same study finds that half of individuals receiving temporary shelter options returned to homelessness, while more than 90% of those receiving PSH retained housing. Temporary shelters are not long-term solutions to the homeless crisis in Missouri. 

What the article says:

“Structured camping facilities are a proven model that offers homeless individuals potable water, electricity, lockers and access to services. Most importantly, structured camping facilities create a centralized location for outreach workers and medical professionals to engage with the most vulnerable homeless people and help them access treatment for the underlying causes of chronic homelessness, such as severe mental illness and chronic substance abuse.”

What the data says: 

Structured camping facilities are not a proven model to address homelessness. While they may provide a temporary solution for people who are homeless, they are inadequate in providing the support and resources needed to move people into permanent housing. Additionally, Missouri is known for having extreme weather, with both dangerously hot summers and cold winters. Tents are not an adequate form of shelter in these conditions.

Diverting funding away from permanent supportive housing to temporary measures is not the answer to addressing homelessness. And if there is less funding for housing, where do those who stayed the encampments supposed to go when their 2 years is up? Underfunding of evidenced-based housing models is a big contributor to the growing homeless issues in our communities. 

Studies show that Housing First works, but only if it’s funded at the levels necessary to provide services to our most at-risk and vulnerable neighbors. We cannot say that Housing First has failed without looking into the longstanding systemic and policy issues that have failed Housing First. Empower Missouri strongly believes that homelessness is not due to personal failings, but policy failures. If we do not work towards passing evidence-based policies, our most vulnerable neighbors are going to continue to face the consequences of those decisions.

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