Last week, I offered testimony against a pair of bills in the Missouri House and Senate aimed at reducing homelessness. I first celebrated with the sponsors and the committee members that the Missouri legislature should be doing more to address our neighbors who live outside; homelessness is an untenable situation that is below the dignity and worth of our treasured community members. Unfortunately, these bills miss the mark and will only increase the difficulties experienced by our neighbors who live outside. Written by Cicero these bills were written and offered as a response to the ‘failure’ of the Housing First approach.
There were several things that stood out to me as I discussed Housing First and our homeless response in Missouri. The first is that a lot of people are misinformed about how homeless services work and quick to dismiss the bipartisan focus on Housing First. However, in practice, they really don’t understand how and why street homelessness is becoming more prevalent, even when we have proven interventions which help support these households.
First, let me offer some data and language clarification to help us situate ourselves within the response to homelessness. For many, the term “homeless” is associated with an image of individuals sleeping under tarps tucked below underpasses. The Department of Housing and Urban Development technically categorizes these individuals as ‘unsheltered,’ which is one of the smallest categories of homelessness. These community members often have compounding issues such as mental health needs and/or addiction. These individuals are counted by homeless service agencies on one day each year as part of an annually coordinated “point in time” measurement of homelessness. Homeless outreach teams are regularly in contact with these individuals, who often want services but can’t connect to them because of various issues including transportation, long waiting lists, and a lack of resources at the agency level. Most of these folks also qualify as ‘chronically homeless’ which means they’ve experienced recurring bouts of homelessness, or they’ve been unsheltered for a full calendar year. That experience leaves folks with trauma, and often shelters or other temporary housing options are not equipped to address their needs. That is often reason enough for folks who feel abandoned and rejected to avoid service engagement.
It is true that chronic homelessness and “unsheltered” homelessness are the most common depictions and discussions of homelessness. However, they are not actually the most common types of homelessness. Most households who experience homelessness do so by couch surfing, doubling up (living with a relative or friend for a short period of time), sleeping in their car or patching together short-term hotel stays. These households often have kids, and when a family with kids enters the system, they are often prioritized over chronically homeless individuals. This means they get services first, including intense wrap-around services to provide security and stability for the kids as soon as possible.
There is a lot of talk right now that Housing First is a failed approach. In large part that is because of the impression that Housing First sought to end homelessness specifically for chronically homeless individuals, and was not well positioned as a family centered response, even though young households with kids are prioritized in the response. One of the most common misconceptions about the Housing First model is that it simply provides long-term free housing to the unhoused. Rather, the Housing First model does exactly what it says– it provides housing first. After a family’s basic safety and stability needs are met through the provision of housing, the household then engages in intense wrap-around services including drug treatment, health-care, job placement, benefits enrollment, childcare supports, and education.
Housing First on the individual level is a smashing success. More than 85% of individuals who are placed in a Permanent Supportive Housing unit thrive there and never enter homelessness again. Many go on to gain employment and increased health, reducing their interactions with the healthcare and law enforcement system. However systemically it hasn’t been the cure we were promised, because service providers cannot keep pace with rising community needs. Housing costs have continued to rise exponentially, while wages and supportive service funding levels have stayed stagnant. Housing First seemingly isn’t making a dent in overall homelessness, because we’re not doing enough to prevent new families from entering homelessness each day. Federal housing resources now will only ever help about 1 in 5 Missouri households who need Permanent Supportive Housing or vouchers of any type. How could we ever end homelessness if the proven solution is only provided to 20% of the people who need it?
It is true: Housing First will not solve the systemic inequities that drive homelessness.
The solution to the increasing homelessness in Missouri is helping our neighbors be able to comfortably afford their own housing. There is no county in our state where a full time worker can be housing secure. Missouri has 122,000 households who are always on the cusp of homelessness because they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. These aren’t households who are struggling with addiction or mental health issues- they are single parents or adults who work more than full time and still can’t avoid homelessness.
The solution to homelessness in Missouri is a living wage for our full time employees. It is prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities, especially those with disabilities or few resources. The solution lies in balancing wealth generation through real estate with housing as a basic human need. It’s helping our neighbors access the health and mental health care they need.
Empower Missouri is always open to creative holistic approaches to solving the housing and homelessness crisis in our state. But we have to look at the state as a system and the individuals as our neighbors. Laying blame on Housing First won’t solve homelessness, and increased criminalization of homelessness will only add to the problem. Our community members deserve more.