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Mayors and the Imperative to Eradicate Homelessness

We shouldn’t give in to the idea that it’s too large and complex to be solved. The policies most responsible for homelessness were enacted by public officials, and it’s within their authority to fix them.

A homeless encampment under the Mulberry Street Bridge in Harrisburg, Pa.
(Joe Hermitt |
I recently had an argument with a former colleague who was complaining about the growing homeless population in Atlanta that sleeps under viaducts, in alleys and other places where they can find some semblance of shelter. She saw the solution to the problem as locking more of them up to get them off the streets and finding a way to make their families more responsible for their misfortunes.

She is not alone in her beliefs; many residents and public officials perceive the homeless population as both a nuisance and an embarrassment. Wishing they would just go away, many write them off as having nothing positive to contribute to society. Even worse, too many public officials give in to the belief that the problem is so large and complex that it cannot be eradicated. This attitude is unfortunately pervasive and symbolic of a serious problem in governing today: the belief that government can’t accomplish huge, important tasks anymore.

As the housing market and overall economy have grown worse for middle-class and working-class Americans, homelessness has grown proportionately. Every day in America, more than half a million people experience homelessness; in Los Angeles alone, more than 20,000 are living without permanent housing. And while homelessness is perceived as primarily an urban problem, today suburban and rural communities must deal with it as well. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 21 percent of all its homeless clients were found in suburban areas and 9 percent were in rural areas. But suburban and rural governments have neither the experiences nor the resources of larger cities.

Public officials and society have a moral imperative to do something about homelessness. And by this I don’t mean to “manage it” or to create Band-Aid approaches that cannot be scaled, replicated or sustained. An all-out war on homelessness needs to be declared, and mayors should be at the front of this charge.

This is even more important if we are ever going to face up to the truth that the underlying policies most responsible for homelessness are the lack of affordable housing, economic inequality and disparities within our health-care systems. These policies were enacted by public officials, and it is within their authority to fix them. Above all, public officials should not cave in to the commonly held belief that they are incompetent and lack the problem-solving mindset of their bottom-line-oriented private-sector counterparts. Next to fighting crime, eradicating homelessness should be one of the top priorities of local government.

As homelessness grows, so does the fear and frustration levels among residents. My former colleague merely wants to be able to move freely throughout her city without the real or perceived possibility of being violently attacked. Notwithstanding the fact that no credible data exist that link a disproportionate level of violent crime to the homeless, running into a homeless individual at the wrong time and in the wrong place can be unnerving.

I had such an encounter myself recently when I pulled into a suburban gas station to fill up my car. I was aggressively accosted by three men, one after the other, asking for money. I assumed they were homeless and on drugs by their physical appearances and blank stares. I gave them no money but couldn’t help but feel sorry for both them and me. I shouldn’t have had to experience that fleeting moment of anxiety when they came out of nowhere and approached me; they deserved help that society, including their government, has failed to provide.

We can solve the problem of homelessness if we muster the will. It is up to local leaders like mayors and county executives to create that will and consensus among residents and other stakeholders such as homeless service providers, public health advocates, transitional housing operators and their fellow government leaders. Heads of municipalities should lead the way because many of the problems associated with homelessness manifest first in their jurisdictions.

Local officials also control the land use, zoning and permitting processes that are critically important to moving the homeless population from dangerous streets into safe, clean transitional or permanent housing. This task won’t be easily accomplished given the challenges most cities have providing enough workforce housing to address the needs of first responders, teachers, essential service workers and others. Then there will be residents who won’t want former homeless individuals in or near their neighborhoods. Local officials should be sensitive to where and how to accomplish the mission of housing the homeless, but of all public officials, they are best equipped to figure this out without destroying the integrity of local neighborhoods.

Addressing the problem of transitional and permanent housing for the homeless also must be linked to providing other critical services such as health care, particularly for addiction treatment and mental health, along with life counseling and job training. Many of these services fall under the purview of other levels of government or under nongovernmental entities such as faith-based institutions and community-based organizations. But under a coordinated master plan developed with the input of key stakeholders, mayors are best able to oversee implementation.

Fortunately, mayors have experience bringing together stakeholders to solve other complex problems, whether it’s controlling crime, cleaning up brownfields, luring major industries or fighting a pandemic like COVID-19. Inviting partners to come together to tackle homelessness would be no different. The most important questions we need to ask: Are we truly committed to solving the problem of homelessness? And will we make the necessary investments?

Mayors must believe in their ability to provide the leadership that will be needed. The return to their communities in terms of maximizing and resurrecting human potential and capital, along with building all residents’ perceptions of safe streets and public order, will be well worth the investments.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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