“Regardless of why people are on the streets, giving them a place to live that offers a modicum of privacy and stability is usually the most important thing we can do to improve their lives. Without stable housing, nothing else is likely to work. If people have housing, the rest of their life may improve. Even if it does not, at least they have a home,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless.
Housing first solutions are inconvenient truths and feel like repugnant conclusions. Giving people housing without requiring that they earn it through work, through sobriety, or through any other qualification that would make them deserving seems to go completely against what it means to be American. It feels like it excuses poor decisions, ignores people’s criminality or drug use, and tacitly approves of laziness. If we want people to be a productive member of society, then we should incentivize them for good behavior and punish them for bad behavior. Giving people housing before we ensure they are living up to our expectations violates the basic ideas we have for incentivizing people to make the tough decisions that are necessary to function in society. However, as the quote from Jencks suggests, it is often necessary.
Withholding housing doesn’t seem to be a solution to our current homelessness crisis in the United States. It seems instead to push people onto the streets, into charity shelters, and into tents alongside our roadways and greenspaces. We complain about the homeless, try to push them out of our cities, and wish we had solutions. But we don’t think to provide more services, more supports, and real forms of housing to the homeless as a solution.
The argument that Jencks and others make is that we need to give people housing, some space of their own, and some stability before we can expect them to get their lives back on track. Our society operates with the assumption that people have a home. Without a house you sometimes can’t receive services and supports the government makes an effort to provide. You can’t get a job. You can’t make plans because you don’t know where you will be sleeping tomorrow and you can’t store any food or grooming products. Without a stable home, you can’t do the things society is telling you to do in order to receive help and get your life moving in the right direction. Housing first may not align with American values on its face, but it is necessary for living up to the values we espouse.