Every time there is an article in the newspaper about homelessness, a few people inevitably leave comments on the story like the two below:
“There is no easy fix to the growing homeless problem. These people have become homeless of their own volition. They have chosen a life of escapism through drugs that has left them chained by addiction into a constant search for the next high. This isn’t homelessness due to poverty, these are people who are ill with addiction.” — CarbonNative
“Feeding street bums is the same as feeding pigeons, you only attract more.” — wallst
CarbonNative and wallst are ignorant of the true nature of the problem, of course, but, unfortunately, they represent the opinion of many housed people in the community.
It would be wonderful if the problem of homelessness were so simple as these two believe, but homelessness is one of society’s most complex afflictions.
It is a costly affliction as well. Homeless people cost taxpayers at least $37,000 to $50,000 or more per person, every year. They are a huge draw on emergency services, paramedics, emergency rooms, police, the justice system, corrections facilities, city maintenance services and other taxpayer-funded services.
Wherever homeless people congregate, property values plunge and the profitability of businesses in the proximity suffer. This is unfortunate but understandable. People suffering homelessness are hard to look at, sure. Just seeing so many of your fellow Americans suffering, and suffering horribly right in front of you, is a difficult experience for everyone who isn’t a sociopath. So, what do we do?
We should all know by now that the knee-jerk reaction of outlawing homelessness doesn’t work. It never has and never will. There is absolutely no way to abolish abject poverty and its effects through legislation aimed squarely at the poor. Laws against loitering, sleeping in public, camping within city limits, public consumption, public urination. These laws accomplish exactly nothing except to add to the cost of homelessness for all concerned.
There is a significant price tag attached to adjudicating these pointless tickets over and over again. Judges and courtrooms aren’t free and assessing fines to people who can’t pay them is pointless — as is routing the homeless through a jail system that is already overflowing due to the continuing disaster that is the “war on drugs.”
Just as there are never enough affordable homes and apartments, so too are there never enough cages.
The homeless are just as human as any housed individual. Housed or unhoused, all humans must somehow find sustenance, all humans must sleep, and, yes, all humans must relieve themselves somewhere. The unhoused are equally as capable of vanishing from sight as the housed. Punishing people for merely existing is not only pointlessly cruel, it also is stupid. It wastes far more money than tolerance and investment in programs to get people off the street.
The most direct and effective program to assist the homeless is the housing voucher. Housing vouchers are simply a financial agreement to provide rent and deposit money for a homeless person or family. After securing an apartment, the person or family on the voucher is then required to follow up with employment counselors, drug treatment, psychiatric help or whatever other assistance may be needed to stay housed.
A voucher is what saved my wife and me from homelessness. I am writing this in the apartment that was secured for us just over one year ago by the Supportive Services for Veteran Families organization.
The concept behind “Housing First” is simple, put the homeless into housing, and then focus on helping them with the issues that contributed to their homelessness. Housing First saves lives, money, and improves the community for everyone. Instead of a $37,000 to $50,000 annual price tag for every homeless person on the streets, people can be housed and helped by the “Housing First” approach for as little as $20,000 a person.
The next pandemic might be mass homelessness. As many as 30 million Americans are threatened with eviction after protections end in January. So, what can you do? Write a letter, make a call, let our elected leaders know. It’s so much cheaper to give people a home.
Kip Yost is a formerly homeless person now living with his wife in an apartment in Salt Lake City.