Here in New Orleans, if you drive along the underside of the US-90 overpass downtown, you’ll pass by a depressingly long string of homeless encampments. It goes on and on, and personally every time I see the tents I become angry, knowing that a few blocks away there are multi-million dollar antebellum mansions with empty rooms galore. I don’t like living in a society that refuses to give people even a bare room with a soft bed as a basic entitlement. Morally, the existence of any involuntary homelessness seems to me to be a strong indictment of the country.
Here’s the thing: we could stop it whenever we wanted. Our local paper recently reported on residents’ rising “concern” about homelessness in the city, noting that with the tent communities come trash piles, drug use, and violence. But the paper also noted a rather astonishing fact: three years ago, the paper says, “homelessness in New Orleans was essentially eradicated thanks to an influx of HUD and FEMA dollars that funded hotel stays for unhoused people.” In fact, “after the first push in early 2020, the number of people living on the street dropped to only about 30 in June 2020.” But “since the housing initiative ended in Jan. 2022, the total number of homeless people in New Orleans is creeping toward pre-pandemic levels.”
So, we essentially solved the problem. (Only 30 people living on the street throughout the city!) And then we un-solved it. As the Lens reported in 2021:
Last March, New Orleans, along with state and nonprofit partners, initiated a successful program that sheltered people in hotel rooms. The program…ended up moving hundreds of people into long-term housing solutions as well. Seventy-five percent of the costs of shelter were reimbursed by FEMA. But the program wound down over the summer. In June, it stopped accepting new people into housing, and closed its doors entirely in November.
The Lens noted that New Orleans actually failed to apply for federal money that could have allowed such a program to continue. Now people have to live under the highway again.
It shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp: if you allow people to have free hotel rooms, they won’t live on the street, and if you don’t, they will. Now, you might believe that they don’t deserve free hotel rooms, that Personal Responsibility means they ought to live on the street. Personally I find that attitude unconscionable, but I also think that holding it means you surrender the right to complain about any of the negative social consequences of having large numbers of people living in tents under a highway. Homelessness is a very simple problem that is often over-analyzed. The fact is that there is a group of people who have found themselves (for whatever reason) unable to secure a roof over their heads. Usually, they simply don’t have enough money, because rent is very high and wages are very low, meaning that even if you work full-time it’s extremely hard to afford a small apartment in many cities. There’s a very direct correlation between how expensive housing is and how many homeless people there are:
Shocking, I know. The more expensive a place is, the more people struggle to afford housing, and the more they struggle to afford housing, the more likely they are to be unhoused.
At this point, those who wish to overcomplicate the problem will bring up Drug Use and Mental Illness, which are treated as important causal factors in homelessness. Personally, I find them irrelevant, because even if a person’s mental illness is impeding their ability to find housing or support themselves, this is only so because we have a society that doesn’t provide guaranteed housing. In other words, there are two factors combining to make a person with addiction or mental health issues homeless: first, the issue they’re dealing with, and second the fact that we don’t guarantee housing.
But it’s perfectly possible to simply provide a guaranteed right to housing. This is the approach Finland has taken. They’re eradicating homelessness through the novel solution of providing housing for people. They took action, and as a result they went from having a substantial homeless population to the point where, by 2020, “practically no-one was sleeping rough on a given night in Finland.”
“Housing First,” i.e., give people housing before trying to address their health issues, has become accepted wisdom among those who work on housing policy. Interestingly, those who criticize a Housing First strategy often do not claim that it fails to deal with homelessness (after all, giving people housing deals with homelessness by definition) but that it encourages irresponsibility or leaves underlying issues unaddressed. For instance, Michael Shellenberger, who advocates getting tough on homeless people through enforcing vagrancy laws (and whose lies about climate change I have debunked before in this magazine, which resulted in him blocking both myself and Current Affairs on Twitter), writes critically of Housing First in his book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities:
An experiment with 249 homeless people in San Francisco between 1999 and 2002 found those enrolled in the city’s Housing First program, Direct Access to Housing, used medical services at the same rate as those who were not given housing through the program, suggesting that the Housing First program likely had minimal impact on the participants’ health. Wrote a team of researchers, “obtaining housing does not necessarily resolve other issues that may impede one’s housing success,” pointing to the lack of significant improvements in substance use and psychiatric symptoms over the twelve months that people were housed (the share of patients with severe substance use actually saw a modest increase). The problem with Housing First stems from the fact that it doesn’t require that people address their mental illness and substance abuse, which are often the underlying causes of homelessness. Several studies have found that people in Housing First–type housing showed no improvement in drug use from when they were first housed.
This would be a fair criticism if Housing First was presented as a drug addiction treatment program. But it isn’t. It’s an effort to end homelessness. What it does about drug addiction is irrelevant. This is like claiming that while Housing First may end homelessness, “the problem with it” is that it hasn’t made people have better personalities. That wasn’t the goal, though, so it’s not a fair criticism.
An article in the American Journal of Public Health in 2020 found that there is strong evidence that Housing First increases the number of people in stable housing. It found much weaker evidence that it inherently results in fewer psychological issues or drug problems. But, again, we are discussing a homelessness crisis. To evaluate an anti-homelessness measure by its success in solving a different crisis is to overcomplicate the problem. (I do think some Housing First supporters might tout its benefits on helping people with addiction issues because they think it’s hard to sell the public on a right to housing for its own sake. Personally I think we shouldn’t lean too hard on this because the case for a right to housing is not in any way dependent on housing as a fix for people’s non-housing related challenges.)
I am sure there are plenty of Americans who think that people with addiction issues don’t “deserve” free housing. Personal responsibility and all that. But to me, that attitude is precisely what is standing in the way of our solving the problem. There is a solution, it just violates some people’s sense of moral desert. Not mine. Personally I don’t lose sleep worrying that destitute strangers are getting things they’re not “entitled” to. To the extent I care about unearned privileges, I’m interested in the useless children of the ultra-rich rather than people who are given access to a bed, a kitchen, and a hot shower.
We could build social housing. We could, like Finland, virtually eliminate rough sleeping. The existence of homelessness in a society is not some intractable, unsolvable problem. It is simply a reflection of what the values of that society are. Do they believe that people ought to be punished for “moral inferiority” by having to sleep under an overpass? Or do they believe that everyone deserves care and a basic standard of living? The United States can solve homelessness easily. If we don’t, it’s only because we have collectively decided that we think it’s justified. But in that case, I don’t want to hear anyone complaining about how unpleasant it is for them to have to see homeless people. Unless you believe in a universal guaranteed right to housing, then all you’re seeing is the results of your principles being put into action.
Photos: The underside of the highway in New Orleans vs. an apartment complex built as part of Finland’s national homelessness strategy.