Funding for the homeless, redux

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

In a recent piece in the Fox and Hounds, commentator Joel Fox warned against slapping homeowners with a new transfer tax – the proceeds of which would go to fund various programs to care for California’s homeless population.

Of course, Joel is not being dismissive of the homeless problem in the state.  He has long been sympathetic to their needs and those generally of individuals lacking decent and affordable housing.  Indeed, Fox and Hounds, Joel’s blog, is currently home to a healthy discussion on the vexing issue of the lack of affordable housing in California and how to end the problem.

Joel, presumably for economic as well as equity reasons, wants to preserve the real-estate wealth earned by homeowners have recently enjoyed during this current real-estate run-up as an appropriate “nest egg” for retirement.  I agree, but for different reasons.

Despite some windshield socio-economics, homelessness is not solely a consequence of a difficult housing market.  In fact, current data say otherwise.  While housing unaffordability is on the rise in the nation, homelessness is actually decreasing in a vast majority of states.[1]  And, there are many reasons for homelessness:  the lack of affordable housing was cited by the U.S. Conference of Mayors recently as only one of five reasons for homelessness.  The others were unemployment, poverty, mental illness and substance abuse.[2]

Moreover, homelessness – particularly as a function of a growing rate of poverty – is reaching beyond traditional housing markets.[3]  Many rural homeless people live in places we do not see:  they often are sleeping in the woods, campgrounds, cars, abandoned farm buildings or other places not intended for habitation.  And, although homeless people in rural areas tend to be homeless for shorter periods of time, they are less likely to have health insurance and access to medical care.

What these data – and the reality of homelessness – suggest is that there are myriad reasons contributing to the decision of many individuals to sleep out in unforgiving conditions.  For example, mental illness can be a huge cause of homelessness.  A study by United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the ‘80’s verified this condition, which is backed up by years of study by and scholarly reports of the RAND Corporation.  Substance abuse is another major factor in causing homelessness.

(Furthermore, decades of federal law makes it illegal to remove homeless people – who choose to sleep on concrete – from the street.)

It’s true:  the varied pathologies behind homelessness – and the various remedies being advanced by experts in the field – argue for public funding, not simply homeowner funding.  And, given the arguably substandard budget levels being supplied by the federal government and the state of California for homeless care, a case can (and should) be made that more is needed.

But, as the data show, homelessness is a complicated thing and not one of congested or high-priced housing markets.  Therefore, the problem(s) demand an assortment of remedies – which is what you have now.  Indeed, today there are emergency shelters, group homes and transitional housing – all supported by a host of services – to assist the homeless.  Moreover, homelessness – at least in California – is being managed by probably the most impressive array of NGOs.

Homelessness is a public, community-wide problem – not unique to tight housing markets – that deserves support from all sources, including renters as well as homeowners.

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[1] National Alliance to End Homelessness, The State of Homelessness in America; 2016.

[2] National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Homelessness in America:  Data and     Causes; 2015.

[3] National Alliance to End Homelessness, Rural Homelessness; 2010.

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