Newly-appointed Director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) Jeff Olivet visited Houston on April 28 to all the Bayou City’s “success” in reducing homelessness by 62 percent. On the eve of his trip, he emailed homeless advocates about the city’s efforts, “Houston’s great. We’re not sure if it’s replicable.” The question should be, is it sustainable?
Since the Obama administration, the federal government’s approach to reduce homelessness has been based on a simple concept: The homeless are homeless because they don’t have homes. Give them a home and — regardless of underlying addiction or mental illness — they’ll no longer be homeless. This policy is called “Housing First.”
The theory, made mandatory for the groups that receive billions in federal funding to address homelessness, is that people experiencing homelessness cannot be helped unless they first have a home without conditions such as sobriety. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) even defunded mental health, addiction counseling, and employment training services. Unfortunately, this one-size-fits-all policy ignores human nature and too frequently results in soul-crushingly low expectations that consign too many to a life of dependency.
The human wreckage wrought by Housing First was revealed last year in Boston where a 14-year study followed 73 chronically unsheltered people who were provided with permanent supportive housing. Researchers found that the focus on housing rather than treatment and recovery saw impressive early results but by year five, only 36 percent remained sheltered, while at the study’s end, almost half of the cohort died due to a “trimorbidity” combination of medical, psychiatric , and substance use disorder.
Results out of California and across the nation also suggest this approach doesn’t work for the homeless.
On the surface, Houston may be onto something. Over the past nine years Houston has seen a reduction in homelessness of 49 percent, with the number of sheltered homeless declining by 204 and the number of unsheltered people declining by 2,932 according to Point in Time (PIT) counts.
Data, like people, can be complex, and thus the picture is not as sunny as it appears. After a few decent years of getting people into housing (2011-2016), Houston’s efforts might be reaching the limitations shown in the Boston study. Since 2017, the number of unsheltered homeless — the population for whom the Housing First intervention was originally designed — soared by 33 percent.
That plateau and rebound may be due to a lack of emphasis on treatment and options in the current system. Some 78 percent of the street homeless struggle with substance use disorder and/or mental illness, and the vast majority of the addicted/mentally ill struggle with anosognosia — a deficit of self-awareness. This means the provision of no-requirements housing, where services are optional and where residents can continue to engage in negative behaviors, is intuitively and increasingly shown to be counterproductive.
Even so, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that thanks to the $615 million in federal Rescue Plan aid, Houston would now spend $100 million under Housing First aimed at half of the chronically homeless population.
Yet even this outlay will ignore another growing and vulnerable population: Houston’s homeless K-12 students — up 16 percent since 2017, and by 26 percent since such education data was made publicly available in 2013. This population was estimated at 7,885 homeless students in the 2019-2020 school year — excluding the students’ parents and pre-K siblings. Unfortunately, this forgotten population — not considered “homeless enough” — leads to higher incidences of trauma that will generate more chronic homelessness in the years ahead.
Houston deserves credit for the progress made in reducing homelessness. But its approach—along with the federal government’s—is likely hitting its human limits, due to its single, merely materialistic focus that too often leads to a life of misery and early death.
Homelessness isn’t caused by a single factor, and strategies to help the adults and children experiencing it shouldn’t be limited to a single solution.
Michele Steeb is a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the author of “Answers Behind the RED DOOR: Battling the Homeless Epidemic.”
Chuck DeVore is a vice president with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served in the California legislature for six years.