The answer to homelessness is primarily one of tackling the issue of affordable housing

Which of the following do you think is true?

  • Claim #1: “Homelessness is primarily a mental health problem”
  • Claim #2: “Homelessness is primarily a drug problem”
  • Claim #3: “Homelessness is primarily a poverty problem”
  • Claim #5: “Homelessness is a progressive policy problem”
  • Claim #6: “Homelessness is primarily a housing problem”

Aaron Carr, the founder and executive director of the non-profit watchdog group Housing Rights Initiative (HRI), took over Noah Smith’s Noahpinion substack to offer some of the most useful schooling I’ve seen recently on all six of these issues.

The answer, of course, is number six.

Numbers one through five might contribute to the housing problem in America overall. But it is a lack of affordable housing that is the chief reason for the growing homeless epidemic.

And, at long last, we have arrived at the actual root cause of homelessness: housing costs.

Because unlike poverty and mental illness and drug abuse and weather and welfare benefits and other factors, the places that have the highest housing costs, and the least housing supply, have the largest homeless populations:

In literally any other realm, this would come as no surprise. You can’t have what you can’t afford. If someone says, “I want a $2000 laptop, but can’t afford it,” nobody would find that hard to believe. But if someone says, “I really want the single largest and most crippling expense known to man, housing, but can’t afford it,” for some bizarre reason people would say, “that’s not true!,” or “correlation isn’t causation,” or “homelessness isn’t a housing problem,” or something patently insane. As I said before, the topic of homelessness breaks people’s brains.

The story of homelessness in America is perfectly captured by the following quote in the Economist:

Few Americans lived on the streets in the early post-war period because housing was cheaper. Back then only one in four tenants spent more than 30% of their income on rent, compared with one in two today. The best evidence suggests that a 10% rise in housing costs in a pricey city prompts an 8% jump in homelessness.

And that’s just it: before modern-day homelessness, there was poverty, there was mental illness, there was nice weather, there was welfare, there were liberal places, and there were drugs. So, something must have changed. And what changed were the rents:

If the primary problem of homelessness is housing, then the primary solution to homelessness is housing. And housing is indeed the solution:

  • Atlanta reduced homelessness by 40% through housing
  • Houston reduced homelessness by 63% through housing
  • Finland reduced homelessness by 75% through housing
  • Tokyo reduced homelessness by 80% through housing

But as important as housing supply is to reducing homelessness, places like Houston also demonstrate the importance of going beyond it.

Houston has always had a significantly lower rate of homelessness than other large cities, like New York City and Los Angeles, because unlike those cities, Houston builds a lot of housing:

But despite its ample housing supply, which, as mentioned, resulted in a lower baseline level of homelessness, Houston has still struggled with this problem. And that is because, while housing supply is vital, it will never ever, ever, ever be enough on its own for families who lack income, the disabled, the elderly, and other highly vulnerable populations.

This is why in 2011 Houston started going beyond supply by implementing the Housing First model, which pairs affordable housing with supportive services for people who are experiencing severe mental illness, drug addiction, and other debilitating issues. And, as a result, something incredible happened – homelessness plummeted.

I recently listened to You’re Wrong About, one of my favorite podcasts, as host Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall tackled the issue of homelessness. It’s an hour and 9 minutes long, so it’s a deep dive. But it will add substantially to your knowledge about the history of homelessness and the ways America has tried to deal with it at different times.

The biggest takeaways for me after all this:

  • Dealing with most of the homelessness in America — and all the problems that come with it — is fairly simple. Build more affordable housing, including in places where the locals don’t want it.
  • Give someone a safe, permanent place to live, and they will be more likely to be able to deal with all the problems they can’t currently deal with because they are homeless, including keeping a job and raising their kids in a responsible manner.
  • Mental health issues and the homeless have bidirectionality; that is, some people are chronically homeless because they have mental health issues, but many homeless persons develop mental health issues because they are homeless, and cold, and face daily rejection, and are constantly dealing with dangers large and small.

We need to think of homelessness not as a battle that will be won (“We tackled homelessness, finally!) but rather as an ongoing effort, like delivering mail. Nobody ever walks away from a post office saying, “Well, we delivered all the mail! Our job is done.” They know they have to come back and tackle it every day, in the large and small ways they do, otherwise the mail will pile up. The same goes for homelessness.

Many homeless people do have serious issues with mental health and drug addiction. Some of them are chronically homeless. They will drift and out of housing depending on where they are with their mental illnesses and drugs. But even they are worth trying to deal with on an ongoing basis because doing so has been shown to save money in the long run.

Many people think that homelessness is a function of warm weather locales. But as the graphics above clearly show, the places with the most homelessness (left) do not correlate with the warmer locales (right). It does correlate that they places with the highest homeless rates also have the most expensive housing rental rates.