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Thinking About Homelessness (Without Thinking About Poverty)

Stephen Hitchcock

Why are people homeless? It seems like a complex question, involving systemic, environmental, and personal considerations, but I would offer it has a clear and simple answer: Because they don’t have a home.

Such tautologies can reveal hidden assumptions, make us aware of our own thinking. My blatant endorsement of circular reasoning is in good company (at least for the time being). Within high-functioning homeless systems of care nationwide, this truism is now considered best practice. I briefly want to speak to why this is the case and how, in particular, it relates to discussions of poverty.

First, why. Behind the tautology lies an approach to homelessness called Housing First. Housing First states that homelessness is a housing crisis and therefore should be addressed, without stipulation or barrier, precisely through housing. This approach distinguishes between “housing” and “emergency shelter.” If someone is staying in emergency shelter, they are still considered homeless according to the federal definition. While housing-based solutions to homelessness have fallen in and out favor since the 80s, the traditional approach to homelessness in our country has been shelter-based intervention.

The logic of such shelter-based intervention is to provide a roof and a meal first so that individuals and families do not suffer from exposure and hunger—and then expand, if possible, beyond subsistence to include programming such as financial literacy, employment assistance, mental health and substance abuse treatment, adult education, and child care. This thinking makes sense. You have a “captive audience.” Why not make good on it?

The trouble arises when the expanded programming begins to overshadow, and even define, the basic problem of homelessness. Sadly, what often happens over time is that the very programs meant to alleviate the crisis obscure it and can even serve to habituate someone to homelessness. Housing First thus endeavors to keep the basic problem—namely, the housing crisis—at the forefront of the conversation.

Homelessness is a crisis (not to mention a form of trauma); preventing and ending the crisis should be the priority. We can make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring by providing the right amount of the right intervention at the right time.

A quick snapshot of the national and local numbers surrounding homelessness brings the issue into clear relief. Kaki Dimock, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Coalition for the Homeless, writes:

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that it costs $40,000 a year to maintain a person in homelessness. A local study suggests that regional costs are closer to $26,000 a year in overnight and day shelter, police contact and arrest, jail, EMS response, local social services, and medical costs. It simply makes sense to house an individual or family experiencing homelessness: it is less expensive and it pays significant dividends. Households that have been housed use Medicaid-eligible services 60% less frequently, even when their behavioral or physical health issues have not been addressed. Having addressed the housing crisis, most households can manage their exacerbating issues without additional assistance.

The why of Housing First stages the how. How does a housing-based approach to homelessness relate to the larger issues of poverty? By keeping them discrete. Simply put, solving homelessness does not and cannot involve solving poverty—not at first. Solve the crisis, then help the individual or family connect to community and mainstream resources. The many horizons of poverty are best addressed once the housing crisis is managed. For example, consider the issue of a healthy night’s sleep; within the homeless population, insomnia is arguably endemic. Insomnia endangers one’s physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. How can someone find, and sustain, gainful employment under those circumstances? When we conflate the crises of homelessness and poverty, we risk entangling our clients in the safety net.

Perhaps we will never completely solve homelessness, but I do think we can create responsive, fast-acting, collaborative systems of care. We can build systems in which individuals and families are diverted from our traditional institutions of care before they ever become homeless, in which there is no wrong door to stable housing, in which we truly make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring.

Stephen Hitchcock is the director and chaplain of The Haven, a low-barrier day shelter and housing and social resource center in downtown Charlottesville, VA.

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