How to Fix America’s Homelessness Crisis, According to a Researcher

  • Paul Constant is a writer for Civic Ventures and host of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast.
  • He spoke with Josephine Ensen, a professor and former political worker, about the homelessness crisis.
  • Insigne says social services are necessary to meet the mental health needs of non-housing people.

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It’s hard to even start having a conversation about homelessness in America anymore.

Even in progressive cities like Seattle and San Francisco, coverage of our historically high levels of homelessness has become so partisan that it is impossible for people to agree on the causes of the housing crisis, let alone work together to find solutions. When some people see homelessness as an economic failure entirely, others view each case of homelessness as an individual failure, blaming it on an untreated mental illness or drug addiction problem.

Let’s be clear that simply building large amounts of housing will not solve our housing crisis, as some city experts claim. But homelessness is not a personal failure apart from systemic economic pressures. A Zillow study from 2017 found that homelessness is increasing in cities where rents exceed a third of median income, and each $100 increase in rent is associated with a corresponding jump in homelessness anywhere from 6% to 32%. Given that average rents in some cities have gone up as much as 91% over the past decade, that’s at least the tens of thousands of Americans who are pushed onto the streets for the first time each year.

University of Washington professor Josephine Ensen joined the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast to discuss her 40-year career working with homeless people around the world as a researcher, nurse and policy worker. Her latest book, Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homelessness in an American City, specifically explores the history of homelessness in Seattle.

How did we get to a point where nearly every American city was filled with tent campers? Insign cites “ongoing defunding of [Department of Housing and Urban Development] Services, in terms of supporting the redevelopment of low-income housing” that occurred during the latter half of the twentieth century, as well as “the improvement of inner-city areas that has displaced people of color and intergenerational people living in poverty” and “the deinstitutionalization of people with very serious mental health problems and developmental issues” which occurred in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

In short, there is no smoking to point to as the root cause of America’s homelessness crisis. Instead, a wide range of policy failures, exacerbated by American leaders’ 40-year love affair with intermittent austerity, led to this moment. (As a guide, consider the fact that European countries with strong social safety nets do not have the same growing number of non-residential people as the rest of us.)

A universal health care system alone would solve many of the problems that drive Americans onto the streets, and that only exacerbate their problems once they are out.

With rents and housing prices skyrocketing, it’s clear that we need more affordable housing in American cities right now. Housing the homeless is cheaper than putting them in an endless, fragmented cycle of homeless shelters and triage services that cost taxpayers between $30,000 and $80,000 per homeless person per year. But the truth is, physical shelter needs are only part of the problem.

“It’s not just a problem of inadequate low income and supportive housing,” Ensign said. “It’s also a sense of belonging, a sense of community, and community support in terms of health and social services, that people need to be safe, healthy and happy in permanent, low-income, long-term housing.”

People are traumatized before they are forced into displacement, and they experience trauma during their displacement. If we don’t have systems in place to address this emotional damage, the homeless population will continue to rise.

So what would Ensign do if it could devise policies to mitigate homelessness in a major American city? “The biggest thing I can fund is ongoing supportive services in shelters, day shelters and outreach programs,” she said, “including high-quality mental health and substance abuse programs for homeless families and individuals,” because if it’s not quality, if it’s not sustainable, it really is. It does more harm than good to people trying to become more stable in housing and health.”

“With rapid interventions and appropriate child and family counseling and treatment, these traumas can be overcome and can actually become sources of strength,” said Insigne.

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