Housing First Solutions

Housing First Solutions

“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.
Pride, Privacy, and Assistance

Pride, Privacy, & Assistance

“Margaret said she had known a lot of shelters – crossed the country twice, staying in shelters along the way – and The Refuge was one of the best, mainly because they didn’t pry and didn’t attach conditions to their help. She wanted to keep her private life private, and at The Refuge she could do this,” writes Elliot Liebow about one of the women he profiled for his book on homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am. Being poor and asking for assistance is hard. It is not easy to admit just how needy one is, what mistakes one may have made along the way, and what personal shortcomings one is still struggling to overcome. However in the United States, getting aid often requires going through a series of questions and divulging such personal information to strangers, agencies, and charities before someone is willing to provide assistance.
In the past I have written about our preference for private charity over government provided aid. I suspect that part of the reason we favor private charity is because we can attach more conditions to the aid and ask more questions of those receiving the aid. It would not be fair for the government to place certain restrictions on how aid can be utilized, to require certain actions of those requiring aid, or to ask certain questions of the petitioners. However, many private charities or religious organizations can limit aid for seemingly trivial reasons. For example, first amendment protections mean that the government could not deny someone aid for wearing an offensive t-shirt, but a religious organization could certainly deny someone aid or assistance if they refused to change out of an offensive shirt.
What I think is important to realize from Liebow’s quote is that there is an additional issue beyond charitable strings and limitations that goes with the questioning and lack of agency that people experience when asking for aid. The questions people face are often repetitive, sometimes don’t seem relevant, and can be prying. People lose their sense of privacy and individuality, something most of us prize and assume to be ours by default, similar to how we think of constitutional rights (in some senses privacy is a constitutional right). Liebow continues, “To the petitioner, it is as if the wall of questions that stands between her and life’s necessities is a hurdle to be scaled only by those willing to leave their pride and privacy behind them.”
Many of us have made mistakes that make us cringe when we look back on them. Hopefully most of us have appropriately processed what went wrong and learned from our mistakes, but nevertheless, we don’t normally like to think back on our worst moments. We certainly don’t like to have people bring those moments up over and over and ask us to keep reliving them or remembering them. Even if we have accepted our mistakes and learned important lessons, we want to leave those mistakes in the past and move forward. The continual questioning and lack of privacy for those in needs means they can never move forward from their mistakes. They become defined by their errors, poor judgement, past laziness, previous drug use, and any other potential cause of their poverty and homelessness. They can’t move forward because they need help and can’t receive help unless they are willing to give up any privacy and pride and live within their worst histories. The questioning and limitations we place on aid seem harmless and sensible to the donor, but to those who need aid for daily survival, it can be humiliating and make everything feel much more difficult for them. “It is difficult to appreciate the intensity of feeling, the bone-deep resentment that many of the women felt at always having to answer questions,” Liebow wrote.
Judging, or Explaining, the Homeless

Judging – or Explaining – The Homeless

In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow wrote the following in the book’s preface:
“In general, I have tried to avoid labeling any of the women as mentally ill, alcoholic, drug addicted, or any other characterization that is commonly used to describe – or, worse, to explain – the homeless person. Judgments such as these are almost always made against a background of homelessness. If the same person were seen in another setting, the judgment might be altogether different.”
I find this quote about the homeless women that Liebow writes about in his book fascinating. The women who Liebow writes about would generally be considered normal if they happened to have a home, he explains. Their drinking, drug use, poor tempers, and other characteristics are used to explain away their homelessness, and as the quote above hints at, to excuse people from having to feel bad about them or to excuse people from having to help them.
People have trouble fathoming homelessness, and it becomes easier to blame the homeless than to blame society or their own actions that may have contributed to the homelessness of others. If another person’s homelessness can be explained by that person’s particular shortcomings, then the problem of homelessness can be dismissed and the homeless themselves can be ignored until they correct their own problems.
Liebow shows that this idea is a myth. The women he spent time with became homeless for a variety of reasons, but the poor characteristics used to define their homelessness generally were not that different from the poor characteristics of normal every-day people who have jobs, families, and homes. We all hear stories or have known professional people who do drugs, successfully retired individuals who drink excessively, or leaders and business owners whose behavior make us question their sanity. However, because they have homes and don’t need social assistance, their behaviors are dismissed. It is only when someone needs help, when someone has lost a home, that we suddenly judge them based on drug use or apparent mental instability.  As Liebow’s quote shows, this can seemingly be more of an excuse for a person’s state of need, and a disqualifying factor for our concern, rather than a real reason why someone is in the state they are in.
How We Use Resources

How We Use Resources

One critique of housing first policies is that it would be too expensive for us to provide public housing to everyone in the nation who is currently homeless and needs affordable housing. The nation has too much debt and there are too many homeless people. Those who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness need to step up to support themselves, because we don’t have enough resources to help everyone. The way to end homelessness, this argument suggests, is not to house everyone, but for everyone to take more personal responsibility for their situation.
Matthew Desmond believes this argument if wrong (to put it nicely).
In his book Evicted Desmond writes, “housing-related tax expenditures far outpace those for housing assistance. In 2008, the year Arleen [A low income tenant he profiled] was evicted from Thirteenth Street, federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled less than $40.2 billion, but homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion. That number, $171 billion, was equivalent to the 2008 budgets for the Department of Education, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Agriculture combined.” For some additional figures, the total for federal expenditures in 2008 was $2.983 trillion, total revenue was $2.524 trillion, and the deficit was $458.6 billion. The $40.2 billion in housing assistance was 1.3% of the federal expenditures, 1.5% of federal revenue, and 8.7% of the deficit. $171 billion in federal tax subsidies for homeowners was equivalent to 5.7% of total expenditures, 6.7% of revenues, and 37.3% of the deficit. What these numbers suggest, and what Desmond argues, is that we simply don’t prioritize housing assistance. We prioritize giving people who already own their homes a break on their taxes, at a greater financial cost to society, than what we are willing to provide to those who need homes in order to keep their lives on track.
Desmond continues, “most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes. If we are going to spend the bulk of our public dollars on the affluent – at least when it comes to housing – we should own up to that decision. … If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources.”
Yes, our country has a large deficit. Yes, our country carries what seems like an astronomical amount of debt. But that doesn’t mean we cannot help the poor and homeless. Our willingness to accept huge tax exceptions for homeowners paying interest on mortgages demonstrates our willingness to live with the debt and deficit we have. It shows that our fiscal and budgetary concerns are not exactly authentic, and suggests they may be an excuse to avoid doing more for the homeless who are not seen as deserving of our aid and energy. Resources exist to allow us to do much more to ensure that every American has a basic home and doesn’t have to rely on charitable shelters and limited public housing assistance. We have resources, we just don’t use them wisely.
Denied Housing Assistance

Denied Housing Assistance

In the United States it is hard to build political consensus for any measure. Measures aiding the poor are especially difficult to build a strong coalition behind. As a result, many of the measures that our nation adopts in an attempt to help the poor or address issues for those in need have compromises that make them less effective. This means that sometimes our policies don’t actually end up helping the people who most need assistance.
Matthew Desmond writes about this in his book Evicted. Regarding housing assistance, Desmond writes, “often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance – the rent-burdened and evicted – are systematically denied it.”
It is hard to find political support to provide assistance to people we don’t find deserving of assistance. The things that make people deserving of assistance are things like personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, a good sense of moral and social expectations, and self discipline to bring all these qualities together. Unfortunately, for many people living in poverty, especially those who have suffered trauma, some or all of these characteristics may be missing. We judge these characteristics by people’s level of debt and missed payments, by their history of eviction, and whether or not they have been able to maintain a stable job. These proxies help us determine if someone has the characteristics that would make them deserving of aid, but they also completely miss the point.
People who are deserving of aid usually are not the ones in the most dire need of aid. Quite often people who possess all the qualities to be seen as deserving hit hard stretches and need aid, but quite often people fail, they lose support and struggle to maintain the characteristics that would make them deserving, and are left without aid, making it impossible for them to actually improve their lives and become deserving of aid.
Desmond’s book, and the work of others on housing issues, advocates for a housing first policy. We cannot make housing assistance an incentive, it must be the primary foundation. We cannot expect someone to get a job if they don’t have housing. We cannot expect someone to stay off drugs if they don’t have a safe place to live. We cannot expect someone to catch up on debt payments if they don’t have a house and can’t get a foothold in the labor market. Housing, and housing assistance, has to be a priority, not an incentive or reward that is only provided to those seen as the most deserving.
The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

I’ve written in the past about aid provided by charitable organizations in the United States. Aid provided by families comes with many of the same pitfalls as aid provided by charitable organizations. Our country is generally not comfortable with aid provided by a faceless government to everyone who qualifies. Many people in the country prefer that aid be provided by charities and/or religious organizations instead. Implicitly, what people seem to prefer is aid provided in a manner where certain restrictions and strings can be attached.
My two main criticisms of aid provided through religious organizations is that donors are engaging in a divine quid pro quo, giving money in exchange for divine reward. The implicit idea is that charitable aid provided to those in need comes with the expectation that individuals receiving assistance will become more religious and/or more respectful toward those churchgoers who donate money. Those who provide aid through religious and secular organizations are also able to be more selective and excludable than aid provided by government. It is easier to deny people aid for lack of a job, for drug use, for perceived sexual deviance, and other factors when you are a small charity or a church organization with a limited amount of aid available to give.
In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows that these same strings and limitations are also present in aid provided by families, another preferred method for aid and assistance that Americans favor over government aid. In telling the story of a young woman who was evicted while Desmond was researching the book, he writes, “Over the years, she had learned to ask her favorite aunt for help only during true emergencies, and evictions didn’t quality. If Arleen asked too often or for too much, she would hear about it. Merva might give her a lecture or, worse, stop returning her calls.”
Our country shames those who receive aid, and all the strings, expectations, and personal responsibility lectures that accompany familial, charitable, and religious aid contribute to that shame. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature. American’s don’t want a well functioning and efficient government program to deliver aid to any struggling American who needs it. They want a system that shames the poor, wastes their time, and limits aid if they are criminals, drug users, or sexually promiscuous.
The story of Arleen is important. Her landlord assumed she had family to stay with or to hold her over if she was evicted. We assume people can always fall back on family until they get their lives on track. We assume that family will do the tough work of instilling personal responsibility in another, or absorb the societal costs of a dejected family member on behalf of the rest of us. We set up limitations and strings on aid from other sources and make government aid hard to access so that people cannot receive aid unless they are personally responsible. When they are not, we expect their family to take up the responsibility that the needy person lacks. This is a system that deprioritizes aid to those in need in favor of principles and rule following.
Unemployment Statistics Miss Informal Labor

Unemployment Statistics Miss Informal Labor

“Reported high rates of joblessness among black men with little education obscured the fact that many of these men did regularly work, if not in the formal labor market,” writes Matthew Desmond in Evicted. Labor force participation rates are important because they inform national policies and discussions regarding the economy, society, and how we understand ourselves relative to others. What Desmond’s quote shows is that national labor force participation rates don’t capture a full picture of work, and as a result, our policies, discussions, and interpretations of the world of work may be inaccurate.
 
 
Desmond’s focus is on the way that landlords are able to access poor tenants as a form of free – or sometimes low paid – unregulated labor. Poor tenants, especially in the reporting from Desmond poor black men, are available for hire in exchange for breaks on rent or quick cash. Payments are not often up to minimum wage standards and requirements, and the work can range from relatively unimportant fence painting to crucial code compliance updates for landlords’ properties. A tenant may be hired to help paint a hand rail or may be hired to repair a roof, and when their work is under the table, then their safety can be at jeopardy. Nevertheless, as Desmond shows, informal labor is common among unemployed men.
 
 
Our welfare and assistance policies are designed so that able bodied young men must meet certain requirements before they can receive any benefits or aid. Many policies require work, community service, or job search activities before any benefits will kick in. Informal labor doesn’t count in this system, so men cannot be seen as deserving of aid if they only find work in the informal labor sector. Informal labor may help poor men get by, but it doesn’t help them get ahead.
 
 
The fact that many poor men find work within informal labor markets should tell us that these men can function within society and can find productive ways to earn money. It tells us that these men have been shut out by various structures and systems that don’t permit them to work in formal economies. When landlords come around and help get these men to a job then they do work, at least enough to get by. They don’t all do a great job once they are working, as Desmond shows in his book, but with a little help they can get started. I Think this is an important point to consider. Often the arrangements are not fair and  the work is not great, but informal labor does take place, and can tell us a lot about the people whose work is not counted elsewhere and the types of systems that could be built to reach them.

TANF

TANF

“TANF has become welfare for the states rather than aid for families in need,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States we don’t like the idea of giving direct aid to poor people. We want to make sure that people who receive social aid and assistance deserve the help they get, and as a result we have put restrictions, limits, and qualifications on the aid that the government provides to poor people. We also tend to prefer in-kind benefits rather than cash benefits, believing that cash benefits will be wasted and abused, and believing (whether we admit it or not) that we know what is better for poor people than they do. Providing the thing we think poor people need is our preference rather than providing poor people cash to acquire the thing.
This is how TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) came to exist in its current form. TANF is a block grant from the federal government to states. That means that the federal government provides a certain amount of money to the states for them to use in assisting the poor. Obviously, this means there is an incentive for states to put restrictions and limits on the aid they give to families so that they don’t expend all of the money from the grant. Any money not spent on needy families can be redirected to other purposes for which states may need additional funding.
Work requirements, drug screenings, complicated forms, long lines, and life-time limits reduce the total expenditures that states have with their TANF programs. Instead of focusing on what would be the most beneficial for the needy, programs utilizing such restrictions focus on what would be best for the states coffers. This is why the authors describe TANF as welfare for the state instead of aid for families.
Integrating the Poor

Integrating the Poor

In $2.00 A Day, Kathrin Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write the following about working to improve the lives for the poorest people in the Untied States, “the primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of sync with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society.” Shaefer and Edin explain that most Americans think we should be doing more to help the poor, but that they also dislike the idea of giving free aid to the undeserving. Consequently, any programs that are designed to help the poor, the authors argue, should be generous, but should match what Americans believe is moral and fair, otherwise it will leave the poor as an undeserving separate class, and keep them from integrating with society.
This is an important idea to consider. We want to do more to help the poor, and many would argue that we have an obligation to help the poorest among us live dignified lives with a reasonable floor set for their income, healthcare, education, and access to opportunities to advance. At the same time, giving aid and benefits to those who are not seen as deserving, particularly in America where we constantly judge ourselves and others on measures of hard work and moral character, will create problems and schisms within society. The result would be a form of economic segregation, cutting the poorest off from the rest of society, perpetuating and reinforcing the existing problems that we see among the poorest individuals in the nation.
The authors continue, “the ultimate litmus test we endorse for any reform is whether it will serve to integrate the poor – particularly the $2.00-a-day poor – into society. It is not enough to provide material relief to those experiencing extreme deprivation. We need to craft solutions that can knit these hard-pressed citizens back into the fabric of their communities and their nation.”
One of the great failings of our current society is our de facto acceptance of economic segregation in the United States.  For a few decades the poor were stuck in dense and ignored city centers while the middle class fled to suburbs to live out the American Dream and the wealthy locked themselves within gated communities to keep their vast wealth to themselves, away from the prying eyes of everyone else. The poor were cut off from any real or meaningful interaction with the middle and upper classes.  Zoning regulations and the way we developed neighborhoods meant that people in certain areas all had similar incomes. The rich were grouped among the rich, the middle class among the middle class, the poor among the poor, and the poorest of the poor amongst only themselves. Real community connection for each group dissipated, with no group fully comprehending the struggles, fears, and problems of the others.
The poorest of the poor were the ones most hurt by this economic segregation, and it is one of the first things the authors suggest we address to begin to help the poor. Their first suggestion is a jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone can do some sort of work to earn money and be seen as deserving for further aid. In the end, however, I think the authors would agree that we need to find ways to better integrate society and rebuild community organizations and institutions that help bring people together, not keep them separated in their own homes and neighborhoods, where everyone else that they interact with in a meaningful way is like they are. We cannot address the worst poverty in our country if we don’t find a way to overcome economic segregation and to better integrate the poor into society in a meaningful way.
Hating Welfare

Hating Welfare

Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about David Ellwood, a Harvard Professor who studied welfare during the 1980’s and 90’s. Ellwood studied welfare and found that most welfare recipients used the program as temporary assistance, not as permanent support. His findings contrasted with the popular narrative that welfare made people lazy, dependent, and degenerate, leaving them stuck in the system with no possibility of ever escaping. Ellwood had trouble getting traction with the lessons he learned from his studies and as the authors write, “Ellwood came to a critical realization: Americans didn’t hate the poor as much as they hated welfare.”
Welfare represents the opposite of the American Dream. We believe that anyone can improve their situation in life as long as they are willing to work hard enough, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and apply ingenuity and grit in pursuit of their goals. Welfare says that individuals have no chance of improving their situation on their own, and thus require assistance from the government for basic functioning and survival. The American Dream is individualistic, creative, nimble, and innovative. Welfare is slow, bureaucratic, and lazy. It threatens the American Dream, and is hated by those who pursue the American Dream and by those for whom the American Dream has slipped away.
Edin and Shaefer note that at the time that Ellwood was presenting his research, a time when Ronald Reagan was pursuing a war against poverty and welfare, American opinions captured in surveys showed that the percentage of Americans who thought the country was spending too little on help for the poor rose from 63% to 70%. People wanted to do more to support the poor, but they hated the systems and institutions that existed to provide aid.
This reveals a challenging paradox that our country still has not solved. We all want to pursue the American Dream, but we also still want to be generous and good people. Our highly consumeristic and capitalistic culture tells us that we should constantly be pushing for economic success, that having a big house, numerous cars, and nice things is a reward for our hard work, and that these purchases are socially beneficial because they power the economy to keep everyone advancing along the American Dream. At the same time, we still manage to feel compassion for those who fall on hard times, and we want to have a social system, especially one backed by the government, that helps people when in need. However, we hate the system we have developed for that purpose.
We have developed highly individualistic institutions to support our American Dream and our consumer culture.  We strive to live in the best neighborhood possible, economically segregating ourselves from lower socioeconomic status individuals and families. We push ourselves to constantly work harder, maintaining longer work weeks and hours than most other western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries. We spend our time as part of professional organizations more than as part of social missions. Nevertheless, we still want to help the poor who we run away from. We still want government (someone else) to solve the problems of people who fail in our capitalistic society. We want to be generous, but we only invest in the institutions which have furthered our own individualistic paths toward the American Dream, leaving others behind. We don’t have the institutions which would truly help those in need, and we chide the welfare institutions that do help them. This is the paradox we face, and the only way to get out is to find new institutions that allow us to continue to work toward a version of the American Dream while simultaneously being more socially active.