Shelter For All?

Homeless_ManThe concept of quickly placing people who are homeless in permanent homes – rather than first moving them to shelters – has become the priority for almost every jurisdiction in America.

This approach is called “Housing First.” The idea is simple: you place individuals experiencing homelessness in their own apartments as quickly as possible – link them with support services as needed – and you will end their homelessness. You will also decrease many of the public costs incurred by individuals living on the streets, such as frequent emergency room visits or law enforcement involvement.  

So, public policy focus – as well as most private and public funding – has been redirected from temporary housing to permanent housing. This plan seems to be the best – especially if there are enough housing resources for everyone.

Yet, those of us on the front line of homelessness have witnessed a growing need for emergency housing. But why?

The reason is due to a lack of affordable housing units available for the homeless individuals we help. And, because funding for shelter beds has decreased over the past few years, fewer resources exist to provide these people with short-term shelter.

It’s not surprising, then, that street homelessness in Los Angeles has doubled in the past couple of years.

So, does this mean that the Housing First approach does not work? Certainly not. We just need to double our efforts to provide enough permanent housing to end homelessness in our neighborhoods.

In the meantime, can we explore different approaches to addressing street homelessness?

It is truly wonderful that several cities have ended veteran homelessness. However, homelessness has increased in many major jurisdictions – and homelessness encampments continue to appear across our landscape.

Local officials have tried to address street homelessness by investing in more permanent housing – as well as by using city ordinances to discourage people from living on the streets. But legal advocates have fought back, slapping cities with lawsuits for “criminalizing homelessness.”

These lawsuits have resulted in cities promising to build more permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness. But such housing is expensive and takes years to build.

So, street homelessness continues to increase. And thousands of individuals continue to go without shelter, while communities remain frustrated that little can be done about the individuals living in tents and vehicles throughout their business districts and neighborhoods.

So, why not provide temporary shelters? If a jurisdiction has 2,000 people living on the streets, why not set up a temporary shelter system for them? Why not operate a shelter on a temporary basis to meet an immediate community need?

The cost to operate a 2,000-bed shelter system – at a minimum rate of $15 per bed night – would be approximately $11 million a year.  True, some might say, “We should spend money on permanent housing, not temporary shelter.” But at $300,000 per unit to build, we would only be able to provide homes for 37 individuals, while others would still have to sleep on the streets.

So, why not set up a shelter system – like New York’s “right-to-shelter” program – as a temporary stop-gap? Then moving forward, for every new permanent supportive housing unit built, we would reduce the shelter system by one bed, saving it $5,475 per bed, per year.

Undoubtedly, we need to invest more money into building more supportive housing for the future.

But maybe, our former shelter system is the best solution for reducing street homelessness right now.