Homes for the Homeless

February 2016
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

Cities are being confronted with a problem they simply cannot manage effectively on their own. The homeless individuals sleeping on our cities’ sidewalks are there because of three long-term trends: deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, stagnant wages and an epidemic of loneliness. That last factor is largely unrecognized by policymakers, but Alan Graham, founder and CEO of a charity for the homeless in Austin, Texas, has been working on the issue for decades. “We believe the single greatest cause to homelessness is the profound, catastrophic loss of family,” he says.

While the causes of homelessness are national in scope, the consequences are decidedly local. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently reorganized his administration’s approach to dealing with homelessness amid criticism that he was not giving the issue a high-enough priority. And as J.B. Wogan reports in this issue, a perception that Salt Lake City was not doing enough to address homelessness was a factor in Mayor Ralph Becker’s defeat for re-election in the fall.

Much of the focus of Wogan’s story is on the largely successful effort to eliminate homelessness among military veterans, which he concludes continues to decline “for one reason: A federal strategy to deal with it has actually worked.” A large component of that strategy has been Congress’ expansion of rental vouchers for veterans.

Veterans constitute only about a tenth of all homeless people. Still, addressing that relatively small population was beyond the scope of cities without major federal support. Most mayors know that, and decisions by some to declare a state of emergency regarding general homelessness should be viewed, in part, as a call for help from state and federal governments. But given that Congress has cut housing support for the 90 percent of the homeless who are not veterans, the prospects of help coming soon seem dim.

While the forces contributing to homelessness have been building for decades, they do seem to have reached a tipping point in the last year or so, partly, perhaps, as the result of a large increase in family homelessness. The policy response most analysts call for is more affordable housing.

But housing subsidized by tax dollars is another factor enabling companies to hold down wages. A better approach is for governments to take the kind of actions that would allow wages to rise with productivity and household incomes to keep pace with rental costs. Strengthening families in that manner would go a long way toward dealing with our homelessness problem.