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Steeb: Humans, not housing, first


In 2013, the federal government institutionalized Housing First — the provision of permanently subsidized housing — as the nation’s exclusive approach to homelessness.

Services to address the conditions that often accompany homelessness were wholly defunded, and resources were instead reallocated to additional housing vouchers.

The administration promised this policy shift would end homelessness in a decade, but sadly, it has been a complete and failure.

California — the first and only state to embed Housing First into state statute — encapsulates just how disastrous this one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness has been.

In the decade following, homelessness rose by a whopping 59 percent in the Golden State, which now boasts 30 percent of the nation’s homeless population and 50 percent of the nation’s unsheltered population. Nationally, the number of homeless Americans is up 13 percent and has reached the highest level ever recorded.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last week disclosed an additional broken promise to California’s homeless. Of the 1,200 tiny homes he committed to have operational one year ago, all but 175 have been dropped.

This devastating news comes on the heels of an even greater breach several weeks back. Despite the $24 billion check the governor and his administration wrote to aid the homeless, a new state auditor report found that the state “lacks outcomes” and “has not consistently evaluated efforts to prevent and end homelessness.”

Homelessness, especially for those who are unsheltered, is increasingly violent and increasingly deadly. Reports of rape and trafficking, particularly among the female population, are skyrocketing, as has the death rate among the homeless population, which rose by 238 percent from 2011 to 2020.

As Newsom and President Biden continue to stand behind this failed policy, they must be held accountable for the loss of human life, human dignity and human potential that fall squarely on their shoulders.

We must remember that those struggling with homelessness once had dreams. Just like us, they, too, were born with innate gifts to realize those dreams. While they may have lost their footing, they can get back up.

Policymakers must focus their efforts on helping them do so. This requires a Human First, versus a Housing First, approach.

Human beings are designed for purpose, for more than just mere existence in housing. Housing without purpose essentially condemns them to the condition(s) that underlie their homelessness — largely mental illness, addiction and trauma. To support human beings to achieve clarity and purpose, we must fund and support them to heal from the diseases that torment them.

Human beings are designed to love and be loved, which requires they be in community with one another. Inherent in Housing First, however, is the provision of individual housing units that facilitate isolation.

A 14-year study proved the “isolating” approach to be ineffective and deadly. Nearly half of the chronically homeless individuals that were individually housed died by year five, and only 36 percent of those housed remained so after that same year.

Indeed, Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles reports that 50 percent of the permanent housing units that surround it are sitting empty because the homeless placed in the units returned to their “street communities.”

Ironically, shelters and transitional housing programs that inherently foster community were — for the most part — rendered ineligible for public funding under the 2013 rollout of Housing First.

To reverse America’s homeless crisis, and California’s crisis, too, Biden and Newsom must employ human being-centered policies that align with our fundamental needs and our innate potential.

Inherently, policies must address the needs of the homeless in parallel with the needs of the society surrounding them. Since 2013, many of us have been forced to abandon our sidewalks, parks and expectations of public safety. This is ludicrous.

Finally, policy must insist on guardrails of responsibility at every level of the system, from the federal government down to local governments, from the individuals struggling with homelessness to the non-profits serving them.

Without these pillars, America and California will continue to fail the homeless and society while wasting outrageous sums of taxpayer money in the process.

Michele Steeb is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.