Twenty20 license.

What’s next for homelessness policy? The transformational phase

Previously, I summarized the three phases of homelessness policy in New York City as conceived by Thomas Main in his new book, “Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio.”

First was the “entitlement phase” of the 1980s and early 1990s in which shelter was first recognized as a right in the city and little to nothing was asked of shelter users in return. Second was the “paternalism phase” during the rest of the 1990s in which higher quality shelter was offered to those willing to comply with stricter rules. Third was the “post-paternalism phase” beginning with the Bloomberg administration in 2002 and continuing into the present day under Mayor de Blasio. This phase has focused on providing no-strings attached permanent supportive housing (known as Housing First) for the chronically homeless who live on the streets, and temporary (but increasingly lengthy) rental subsidies for those who are exiting shelters.

Main does not speculate as to what the next phase of homelessness policy might be. He appears to believe that the post-paternalism phase could be the most successful yet, and perhaps not in need of significant reform aside from more government investment.

However, he oversells its success. He claims that Housing First for the chronically homeless achieves better outcomes than traditional paternalistic approaches. For the most part, the evidence does not bear this out. Also, it is unclear that strategies to provide rental subsidies to homeless families, especially of the lengths used by Mayor de Blasio, will lead to substantial reductions in the shelter population, or at least that they will do so at a reasonable cost. Indeed, the shelter population is still near record highs of almost 60,000 people. And there is widespread concern that unsheltered homelessness has increased in recent years as well.

The next mayor of New York City (or the current one) may decide to embark on a new phase in homelessness policymaking. I believe the best approach is what I would call the “transformational phase.” This would entail ending our obsession with solving the social problem of homelessness, and would focus squarely on holistically improving the lives of the most vulnerable.

It will require breaking from the paternalism phase’s punishment of undesirable behavior with disconnection from needed services. But it will also require breaking from the post-paternalism phase’s refusal to ever use requirements or to focus directly on holistic outcomes, i.e., curtailing addiction, restoring mental health, reconnecting with community, and promoting work and service.

The capability to implement and scale programs that are actually effective in promoting these goals will come from bigger and better data, as we figure out ways to seamlessly track individuals over time. This will allow us to evaluatespecific service providers on how well they are promoting holistic outcomes for the most vulnerable, rather than mandating that they follow specific models like Housing First or harm reduction strategies.

Bringing to life the transformational phase would require a new mindset that lifts up the goal of human flourishing above the calls to end social problems.

Embracing technology could help as well. I recently proposedequipping homeless individuals with smartphones to serve as a platform for data collection, experimentation with innovative interventions, and a wholly new way of implementing policy.

Bringing to life the transformational phase would require a new mindset that lifts up the goal of human flourishing above the calls to end social problems. It will require significant resources, and it will require targeting those resources to the most vulnerable. In the long run, I believe that the transformational phase could reduce homeless populations more effectively than the post-paternalism phase: If people’s underlying problems are solved, then they can more quickly move back in with family or on their own without expensive services persisting indefinitely. However, reducing the homeless population is not the primary (and certainly not the only) goal and would likely not happen right away.

Thomas Main has shown us just how much progress a city can make in serving some of the least well off members of society, thus proving that innovation is possible. New York City provides safe, clean and dignified shelter for thousands of families at a time, and it has worked hard to bring some (but certainly not all) of the most vulnerable individuals sleeping on the streets indoors. The question now is whether we continue to embrace innovation, focus squarely on human flourishing for all, and put our modern tools to work. The status quo is much better than the state of affairs decades ago, but it’s still not good enough.

First published at on August 5, 2016.

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