Homelessness is, foremost, a housing problem

December 15, 2017

By Tatjana Meschede

A home not only provides a physical space in which to live. More importantly, perhaps, it provides security, roots, identity, a sense of belonging and a private place for emotional well-being. All of that is lost when a person becomes homeless. Even worse, society no longer recognizes homeless individuals as part of society. They become part of the landscape, a nuisance and a shameful reminder of the failures of our society.

Who, other than those people who have lost their home and the respect of society, can speak to what they need in order to leave homelessness behind? After working with homeless people for over two decades, I believe that, in addition to collecting quality data, it is critical for social scientists to speak with homeless people to learn how well interventions actually work and to implement better solutions to help them.

My path for doing this work began on my very first day on U.S. soil. That day in August 1988, I spent about three hours in downtown Los Angeles waiting for a bus to Orange County, where I was planning to spend the weekend with family friends. Having arrived the previous night from Germany, I was slowly and curiously taking in the new sights surrounding me. I noticed several people camping out at the bus station and began to wonder why anyone would do that. Then one of the women, probably in her 40s, came to me and asked me for money. Confused about why a woman that age would request money from a much younger person, I said, “Why do you ask me for money?” Her answer was, “Because I am homeless.”

I had never heard that term before. So I asked, “What do you mean by saying you are homeless?” “It means that I sleep on the streets,” she said. Sleeping on the streets in the richest nation on Earth? I was astonished. My next question was, “Why are you homeless?” At that point, the woman became clearly annoyed with me and said, “Are you giving me any money or not?” I really had no money to give, so my answer was no.

From that day forward, I asked many questions about homelessness whenever I had the chance, and I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to join a research study on homeless shelter users when I moved to Boston two years later. That study began to answer the many questions I had about homelessness, providing some insights into the range of people using a homeless shelter. One man said he was kicked out of his house by his girlfriend and was working while in the shelter. Another guy had spent significant time on the streets. A third woman had mental health issues. But, I continued to ask, are these reasons to not have your own home?

We have come a long way since the 1980s, when homelessness was first recognized as a new social problem. Initially convinced that providing shelter, food and attending to other immediate needs would solve the problem, we soon had to admit that this did nothing to solve homelessness; in contrast, it grew. Federal funding through the McKinney Vento Homelessness Assistance Act was first made available in 1987, and expenses to solve the problem have increased ever since.

The next set of responses included establishing a continuum of care model in the 1990s in which homeless people had to prove themselves “housing ready” by moving from a shelter to transitional programs to housing. This predominantly treatment-focused approach left many homeless people behind. A new Housing First model in early 2000 for chronically homeless individuals finally addressed the most pressing, and obvious, need of homeless people: housing. This approach was also implemented for homeless veterans through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, which significantly reduced the numbers of homeless veterans — in fact, ending veteran homelessness in some areas.

For homeless families, the Rapid Re-Housing model supports short-term rental expenses, from three months to two years. In geographic areas with extremely high rental costs, such as Boston, it is extremely challenging for families in Rapid Re-Housing to maintain their home after the short-term housing voucher expires. Some are lucky enough to access a long-term housing voucher. However, a third of households need support — waiting lists are long, and many in need have to manage without.

When these housing-focused approaches were first implemented, I was eager to learn how they worked for the people who participated in a number of evaluation projects I led. More recently, I began evaluating a new initiative that creates a targeted link for homeless families to access employment. So far, these approaches show positive results: After accessing housing, participants are healthier, as they can tend to their health needs, they are more connected to their families and other social networks, and, most importantly, they feel like part of society. Housing-focused approaches have successfully ended homelessness for many through cost-effective measures, and access to employment prevents shelter re-entry for a number of formerly homeless families.

While quality, person-level data are critical to better understanding the scope and pathways in and out of homelessness, we can also learn much about the experience of people in need of homeless services. In almost all of the research projects I’ve conducted, input from homeless clients has been an integral part of my work. Over the years, I have spoken with hundreds of people experiencing homelessness, including youth, the elderly, families, men, women and those not conforming to a traditional gender binary.

It’s evident that homeless people bring a different perspective to the field. In my early work with homeless street dwellers in Boston, their assessment of service needs stood in stark contrast to that of their service providers. While people on the street knew they needed housing to get off the street, service providers stressed the need for health and substance abuse services. The Housing First model has since taken the voices of homeless street dwellers seriously and continues to provide a place for them to live before addressing their other service needs.

Homeless people also have a lot to teach the public, among whom there is widespread belief that the homeless choose to live on the streets. Again, when you talk to people on the street, their voices tell a different story.

Here are some examples of what individuals have told me: 

“I never thought I would be homeless.”

“The biggest challenge living on the streets is being safe. People are always robbing and stealing.”

“It’s a zoo out there, absolutely crazy! I get $550 per month in Social Security income. I buy food and clothing, and I rent a room in a motel for as long as it lasts.”

“It takes a lot of work to conceal that you are homeless.”

This is what individuals told me after moving into a room through Housing First:

“I was crying [with joy] all night when I moved into my own room.”

“I thought I would never be able to have my own room again.”

Mothers in Rapid Re-Housing, even though they are supported only by a temporary housing voucher, share the same sentiment. “Housing gives me the opportunity to feel like I’m somebody and I’m doing right. It’s a return to normalcy.”

Their openness to share very personal stories with me both humbles me and provides me with ammunition to continue this work. As a society, we have tinkered with this problem, unable or unwilling to recognize that homelessness is first and foremost a housing problem, not a mental health, substance abuse or other related problem. The data are clear: When we use a housingbased approach, such as Housing First or the HUDVASH program, we significantly reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness. When you ask homeless people themselves, that’s exactly what they answer: I need a secure place to live.

Homelessness as we know it today did not exist some 30 years ago. Steep rises in housing costs, stagnating wages, and cuts in our mental health, substance abuse and welfare systems all contributed to the rise of homelessness among our fellow citizens. In 1948, the U.S. adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services.” It is time that we as a nation implement this vision.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Heller Magazine.