Thursday, October 19, 2017

Housing the Homeless

The goal to end homelessness has been around for years, in Baltimore other cities and in the nation. To date there is no city that has ended homeless, not in America and probably not anywhere else in a "market economy".
On any given night in the United States, half a million people are homeless. Some of them sleep in shelters, others on the streets; roughly one-quarter are children. (The Atlantic)
Ending homelessness can appear as a Sisyphus task
Although one can find homelessness in Switzerland or Germany as well, the US has the highest number of homeless in the industrialized world. (Greendoors).  In 2010 then President Obama announced a plan ("Opening Doors") to end homelessness at least among children and youth. It was amended in 2015. The State and the City have their own plans to end homelessness.

In spite of all the plans: On any given night in Baltimore, an estimated 2,600 people are homeless.
“If you were to ask me what’s the cost of ending homelessness in Baltimore? That’s $350 million dollars.” (Mayor Pugh at a press conference on 10/11/17)
Nationally, the average monthly cost of serving a family in an emergency shelter is $4,819. Providing them with a voucher for housing, on the other hand, is just $1,162.
facts about Baltimore's homeless (Pugh report)

Mayor after mayor declares ending homelessness as their goal and mayor after mayor fails. In 2008 Baltimore's Sheila Dixon issued a detailed road-map to end homelessness in 10 years.
Goal: By 2018, Baltimore will create and maintain a supply of housing sufficient to re-house homeless individuals and families and meet the needs of those at risk of homelessness; these individuals and families will have access to housing affordable to them in the least restrictive possible environment and will receive the supportive services necessary to remain stably housed (2008 Plan)
A few months before that deadline the current mayor issued a new plan prepared by the 2017 Mayoral Group on Homelessness. Baltimore's homeless are as numerous as before. The nine person workgroup met seven times between March and June of this year and released their 32 page report on October 11. The new report should be a progress report on the specific steps that had been laid out before, explaining where progress was made, where not and why not. Instead, it is an entirely new document.
Contemporary homelessness is a result of poverty, structural racism, traumatic
experiences, lack of affordable housing, loss of living-wage employment for low-skilled workers, and limited safety-net programs. In Baltimore City, 2,669 people were estimated to be homeless (unsheltered or staying in emergency shelter or transitional housing) during the 2017 Point-in-Time Count, and more than 1,400 homeless youth under age 25 were identified during the 2015 Youth REACH count. (Pugh report)
Presented with the plan by the media, many homeless advocates and homeless themselves declared that this new paper wasn't really a plan and more a policy paper. It provides additional insight into the problem but little in terms of how to solve the problem with specific steps, a schedule and milestones. With its strong emphasis on providing permanent housing the plan is naturally centered around the issue of affordable housing.
Pugh report: The green bugs are the homeless, more theory than practice

Affordable housing is in a crisis across the country with a growing population facing a diminishing number of affordable housing units coupled with an ongoing reduction of federal funds provided to create affordable housing. I outlined this crisis in 2014 with these words:
Without a roof over your head, no bed, no address you are reduced to almost nothing. You become the figure we can see when we peer through the windshield of our comfortable 2 ton moving fortress to decipher the cardboard sign that you hold saying something about being homeless while you stand  in the middle of the street, no matter the temperature. Then the light turns, everybody moves but you stay put. We may have observed similar figures in other countries, possibly near train stations and have and concluded that homelessness is a universal scourge, no matter what the social safety net, unavoidable, nothing particular to the US.  Simply from the homeless at the street corners we wouldn't conclude that US housing policies are heading for a train wreck. Yet such wreckage appears likely, this article will outline why. (Community Architect)
If anything, the situation has become worse. Baltimore needs to immediately begin to implement its inclusionary zoning requirement for affordable unit required to be part of any larger housing development. The lack of affordable housing and the precarious conditions of Americans without healthcare, without bank accounts or any savings and without a basic education conflate to the fact that the US has so many homeless.
Baltimore spending on the homeless 2014-16. 70% come from federal sources
The average American family savings account balance is $4,22024.3% of American families have no savings at allOnly 39% are certain they could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose next month13% have no health insurance7.7% do not have a bank account of any kind 
Solutions can't be found in City Hall alone. They need to include fundamentally different federal housing policies, higher minimum wages, better insurance policies for the poor and more rapid response type housing that is better than homeless encampments but quicker and simpler than permanent social housing. Isolated initiatives often have unintended consequences. Such as Pugh's laudable official squeegee corps with training and money earning has brought out the unofficial squeegee kids on street-corners in such force as had not been seen in years.

Cities and the federal government should stop declaring the end of homelessness as a realistic goal. Even if Baltimore would somehow find the $350,000,000 that the report declared as the cost to solve the problem, homelessness would not disappear without a coordinated system-wide state and nationwide approach.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

On this blog:
Pop-up architecture for the homeless?
The American Rental Crisis

Huffington Post: Think Utah Solved Homelessness? Think Again
Independent: A city in Canada has (nearly) ended homelessness
Baltimore Brew: Pugh’s solution on housing the homeless: Do it with private dollars
The Journey Home: Baltimore's 2008 plan to end homelessness

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