The “all in” — the Biden administration’s new plan to reduce homelessness — is all wrong.
Housing First, a policy experiment conducted by the Obama-Biden administration in 2013, established the plan. This approach eliminated funding for treatment services, and predicted that providing permanent housing would end homelessness within 10 years.
A decade later, homelessness has reached unprecedented levels. While the global pandemic contributed little to the overall escalation, that path was paved long before it hit.
Pre-pandemic data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed a 15.6% increase in the homeless population in the country. In California — which in 2016 became the only state to fully adopt housing first — pre-pandemic data revealed a 33.8% increase in homelessness.
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Spending has gone up, but homelessness has continued to increase
The scheme is not only based on a failed experiment, but also proposes doubling its annual budget – from $4.1 billion to $8.7 billion.
Regardless that this proposal will die on its way to the new Congress, President Joe Biden seems to have forgotten that despite increases in federal spending under Housing First, the number of homeless Americans has gone up.
Thus, the “All In” assertion that by 2025 the United States will achieve a 25% reduction in homelessness is not only without precedent, but also capriciously absurd.
The scheme also declares that “housing is health care,” and that every American has the right to housing.
This claim is patently false. A 2018 study by the National Academy of Sciences—the premier research institute of the federal government—shows that housing does not improve health outcomes for the homeless: “Overall, except for some evidence that[durable supportive housing]improves health outcomes among individuals with HIV/AIDS, The panel found that there is no substantial published evidence to date to show that PSH improves health outcomes or reduces healthcare costs.”
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Perhaps the most outrageous statement in the outline is that increased homelessness is due to “growing economic inequality exacerbated by a global pandemic, rising housing costs, and housing shortages. And exacerbated by unequal access to health care, including mental health and/or or treatment of substance use disorder; discrimination and exclusion of people of colour, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBTQI+), people with disabilities, and older adults; as well as the consequences of mass incarceration.”
We know that three-quarters of the homeless are mired in mental illness and addiction, whether precursor or consequence of their homelessness.
Homelessness policy should put people first
The US Surgeon General describes addiction as a complex brain disorder. Well-supported scientific evidence shows that brain disorders reduce brain function, impeding the ability to make decisions and regulate one’s actions, emotions, and impulses.
However, not only are treatment services prioritized under Housing First, homeless people have the option to engage in sobriety and treatment services – although their ability to draw such conclusions is impaired.
Instead, the United States should use a human-first policy that insists on railings of personal accountability—including sobriety—to support recovery, growth, and freedom.
As the homeless begin to recover, we must provide additional services such as job training and life skills education to ensure that once they have access to housing, they can maintain it independently.
People first, not housing first, is the best way to reverse this national crisis.
Michele Stipe, a senior fellow at the Texas Foundation for Public Policy, oversees the foundation’s initiative to change homelessness policy. She is the author of Answers Behind the Red Door: Fighting the Epidemic of Homelessness.