A Three-Point Plan to Tackle Homelessness

Photo by Caitlyn Wilson on Unsplash

New York City is experiencing a homelessness crisis. The number of homeless individuals in New York is at its highest point since the Great Depression, up 43% from ten years ago. In 2017 alone, more than 129,800 people slept in the NYC municipal shelter system, including over 45,000 children.

New York isn’t the only major American city facing a homelessness crisis: from San Francisco and Seattle to Boston and Washington, cities across the country are struggling to address the growing humanitarian challenges that rising homelessness presents.

To solve this national crisis, we need to understand that homelessness is a symptom of systemic injustice and inequality in our cities and country — lack of adequate affordable housing, a failed health care system, domestic violence, untreated mental illness, and addiction disorders, to name a few.

Ending the cycle of homelessness requires a nationwide, federal approach that directly addresses the root causes of homelessness. I propose a federal homelessness reduction program that takes a three-pronged approach: emergency federal grants for permanent supportive housing; a federal loan program for cities to build self-sustaining mixed-income social housing that puts an affordable roof over every head; and healthcare reform targeting medical debt and serious mental illness.

First, supportive housing. The federal government should issue emergency grants to cities in desperate need of new permanent supportive housing, which provides on-site social services to homeless individuals in order to put them back on a path to stability, employment, and their own housing. Critically, access to permanent supportive housing shouldn’t be contingent upon any arbitrary criteria: putting a roof over people’s head should be the first step towards achieving economic stability, not the last step in a convoluted series of government programs and regulations. Supportive housing for vulnerable individuals must have access to consistent and affordable health care, especially for treating mental illness and addiction disorders.

Emergency grants for permanent supportive housing even winds up being more financially sustainable than continuing to fund expensive social programs. Individuals experiencing chronic homelessness rely heavily on expensive social services such as emergency room care and emergency housing, and are jailed more frequently for minor offenses. Alleviating homelessness will dramatically reduce the costs incurred by these services, resulting in serious public savings when these vulnerable individuals are placed in permanent housing situations.

Second, the federal government should offer a loan program to cities so they can build social housing — government-owned mixed-income housing that is financially self-sustaining and privately or cooperatively managed. Residency is open to everyone but rents are based on income, providing operating funds for upkeep and allowing the city to pay back federal loans. Middle-income residents would enjoy a lower rent payment than in other private housing, and portions of their rent would help subsidize the rent of poorer residents.

Social housing, which has been utilized extensively in Europe, prevents the displacement of communities and the segregation that often comes with a new influx of housing, as well as ease rent pressure that drive the cycle of homelessness that plagues this country. Social housing can be built initially on empty government-owned land, then utilized as part of redevelopment and inclusive housing zoning policies.

Creating government-owned mixed-income housing unitswill assist lower and middle-income families with reduced rents, prevent gentrification and displacement by ensuring current residents continue to have a place to live, and encouraging income diversity within communities to prevent the concentration of poverty. Social housing also provides a first step back into healthy communities the current homeless population, rather than temporary shelter housing which is more costly and less effective in the long term.

Finally, healthcare. Medicare for All, which I proudly support, will provide affordable health insurance and healthcare access for every American, eliminating the outrageous co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses that drive people into poverty and homelessness. In addition, the federal government must also fund structured debt forgiveness programs for families already burdened with unreasonable, unaffordable medical debt.

Nationally, one third of homeless people are seriously mentally ill, often untreated and unable to care for themselves. Targeted federal funding and favorable Medicare policies to keep local hospitals open, especially psychiatric hospitals, will provide much needed mental health resources to assist this population. Assisted outpatient treatment for the seriously mentally ill, like Kendra’s Law in New York City, must be fully covered by insurance and supported nationally by federal agencies including the NIH and CDC.

A coordinated federal homelessness program addressing supportive housing, social housing, and healthcare will be in important first step towards mitigating and ending the cycle of homelessness. We simply can’t afford to wait for cities to solve this crisis themselves, and there’s no guarantee that they ever will. The federal government, working with states and cities, can fight homelessness better, faster, and more effectively, and end this crisis of human dignity and quality of life that is overwhelming so many communities across the country.