One of the most durable legacies of “compassionate conservatism” has been a federal commitment to helping the homeless by giving them no-strings-attached housing benefits. George W. Bush’s campaign to end chronic homelessness encouraged localities to embrace the Housing First philosophy, which holds that any problems with mental illness or unemployment should be dealt with only after the homeless person has received housing. President Barack Obama ratcheted up Housing First requirements in federal grant programs; the Trump administration tried, but failed, to weaken them.
This week, President Joe Biden announced an initiative called “House America” that affirms his campaign commitment to Housing First. Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, the government has made “historic resources”—tens of thousands of vouchers, plus $5 billion to build new housing—available to provide housing for the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. Admiringly covered in the press as a “moon shot,” House America is actually most notable for its shrunken ambition. In promising nothing for his plan beyond that it will “bring us closer to ending homelessness,” Biden implies that the federal government expects less from Housing First than it used to.
That Housing First would end homelessness was once viewed as a scientific certainty. The Bush administration spoke of “abolish[ing]” homelessness. California governor Gavin Newsom, when mayor of San Francisco, committed his city to the Bush-led effort with a “Ten Year Plan to Abolish Chronic Homelessness.” Confidence in abolition stemmed from the “evidence-based” reputation of Housing First. Social-science researchers found that chronically homeless people, when given subsidized housing without preconditions, often stayed in that housing, at least for the one-to-two-year duration of the typical study.
It turns out, however, that when permanent housing programs are measured over a longer time horizon than just one or two years, many clients are found to have died or to have moved out of the unit they were initially placed in. Cities may need to open ten units of housing for the homeless just to reduce the local homeless population by one. In the summary judgment of Columbia University economist Brendan O’Flaherty, whose work has often been cited by progressives, “We don’t know how to end homelessness. Not in the aggregate, anyway.”
A focus on Housing First has foreclosed alternative approaches. In the 1990s, cities had leeway to use federal homelessness funds to operate workfare-style and sobriety-oriented housing programs. Community-based programs still spend federal money, but they must operate according to Housing First principles. “House America” reaffirms this Potemkin localism: 26 state and local entities have signed onto the Biden program, none of which will be allowed to impose sobriety requirements in federally funded housing programs.
The Biden administration insists on calling Housing First “evidence-based,” but if the evidence is so clear, why is the administration not confident that it can end homelessness anytime soon? In a word: California.
The press release for “Housing America” describes America as facing a “rising” homelessness crisis. But official numbers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development show that, since 2010, homelessness has been generally declining nationwide but growing in progressive jurisdictions such as California. The Biden administration itself acknowledged this reality when releasing the annual “point-in-time” numbers back in March, which registered a small uptick over the previous year. “The increase in homelessness was due to the rise in unsheltered individuals,” it noted, and the “increase in unsheltered homelessness is driven largely by increases in California and coincide with increases in overall homelessness.” Biden official Anthony Love noted that the total number of people experiencing homelessness had dropped by 9 percent since 2010. That figure becomes 18 percent when California is excluded.
Homelessness in California is a source of profound embarrassment for Housing Firsters. Wealth is abundant, as is the political will to tax that wealth and spend big on government programs. And yet California’s homelessness crisis continues to deepen. Since Housing First was adopted as official state policy in 2016, the homelessness numbers have risen from 118,142 to 161,548.
Far from resembling a moon shot, homelessness policy remains in a familiar orbit. Policymakers press on with Housing First and their plans to fix the problem—someday. Officially, certitude remains: “We know that homelessness is solvable.” The resources are there, too. But nobody promises anything too specific. The Biden announcement signals more honesty but less coherence in federal homelessness policy.
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