MI senior fellow Stephen Eide joins Brian Anderson to discuss the meaning of homelessness, how the concept has evolved over the course of U.S. history, and the public-policy roots of the nation’s current homelessness crisis.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is my colleague Stephen Eide. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He's a contributing editor of City Journal. He holds a PhD in political science and is an expert on homelessness and mental health issues, which he has written about extensively for City Journal and other outlets.

He has a new book forthcoming called Homelessness in America: The History and Tragedy of an Intractable Social Problem. The book couldn't be timelier. It gives a comprehensive overview of something that is plaguing U.S. cities from coast to coast, and has been in the news a lot recently.

Now, Stephen Eide, thanks very much for joining us.

Stephen Eide: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Your book, again, the title is called Homelessness in America. It begins with a call for terminological and conceptual precision. In the 1970s, you note, progressive advocates who were hoping to expand the realm of subsidized housing began to search for a more compassionate-sounding word than vagrant, which is what we used to call the homeless. They landed on the term homeless, which you note had long connoted a sense of social alienation. But today's activists reject that word. They opt instead for more benign terms, such as unhoused, that they think of as carrying less stigma.

You're right, though, that the term homeless is likely to remain with us, though we could stand, you note, to be much clearer in how we talk about the problem. That clarity should begin, in your view, with thinking more clearly about it. To start off, what is homelessness exactly? Is it a coherent concept? Is it a unified experience, or are we talking about a bunch of different pathologies that vary across time and space?

Stephen Eide: Well, one way in my book that I get at that question, what is homelessness, is through the history. I devote the first third of the book to the history of homelessness, which is, I think, a useful way to think about or to bring into focus what a strange concept it really is. We've always had, throughout American history, really, human history, individuals, men who didn't have a defined place in any social order, any family or community, and were very poor.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the common terms we used for them were hobo, bum, tramp. Those were terms that now strike us as very un-PC, offensive, but also, if you really dig into the literature from that time, denoted specific qualities and were, in fact, terms that these guys used among themselves. A hobo, for example, was a guy who worked and moved around the country pursuing work; a tramp was a guy who moved around the country but didn't work; and a bum, who didn't work and didn't move. In a way, these terms, if you push past the kinds of offensiveness, what I think you find interesting about these terms is they have nothing to do with these guys' housing situation, really. They're defined in terms of their disposition to work or just where they are, their place in society.

Moving further into the 20th century, we find less working amongst the "homeless" population, so the hobos and tramps kind of go away, but the bums stay. You had these skid row communities—the Bowery in New York City, or you had a lot of very, very poor men who were still very alienated from mainstream society, not part of a family, not part of a community, their terms at the time: vagrant, derelict.

That was a situation, pushing into around the 1980s, that we had when, as a result of a larger social policy debate—in terms of the direction of the welfare state, where we wanted to go with the war on poverty, the Reagan Revolution—the advocates of the "homeless men" decided we needed a better term, and they settled on homeless. I think that that was a way to really focus the attention on more government investment in housing at a time in which, from their perspective, the commitment to those types of investments was wavering on the part of the government and American public. I think, in a lot of ways, the situation since 1980 hasn't changed very much, and we still never really come to terms with the fact that this was a term that was pushed as a result of a commitment to a particular agenda, not as much because it reflected the underlying reality it was trying to describe.

Brian Anderson: You argue in the book that modern homelessness in this sense really grew out of a situation in which a number of reforms were imposed over a several-decade period—urban renewal, vagrancy laws, de-institutionalization—that, in fact, made the problem a lot worse, especially in cities. I wonder what your view is of that kind of policy role in creating homelessness, and what are some of the implications for thinking about homelessness in a more nuanced way, that the history reveals—that we're, in fact, talking about people with different dispositions and different problems?

Stephen Eide: Yeah. Well, in a sense, I'm trying to sympathize a bit with reformers, policymakers in the mid-20th century who were looking out on skid row communities, who were looking at these massive asylum complexes, and found those situations very disgraceful. We're America. We just won World War II. We're on the way to the moon. Clearly, we can do a lot better than Skid Row, and it can't get any worse.

We know from our vantage point of history that, in some ways, it probably got worse, but at least the problem changed dramatically. I think that brings into focus just how hard it's going to be to make a difference when you're working with these very disadvantaged populations and intractable problems, as I say in the title. I think it gives you a bit of a sense of humility as to what we can do.

Brian Anderson: Right, especially when it comes to the problem with de-institutionalization, where we need to think about, and you've written extensively about mental health issues for City Journal, but these overlap with the homelessness problem. A lot of the people you find on the streets permanently are suffering from drug addiction and also untreated forms of mental illness, right?

Stephen Eide: Yeah. The advocates have always preferred to downplay the mental illness connection because the more you focus on mental illness, the less you focus on housing, and they need maximum focus and resources toward the housing issue. But in my view, studying the history especially, there's no question that mental illness really is one of the defining features of modern homelessness. If you look at the hobo culture, tramp culture, Skid Row culture, you find a lot of problems—poverty, certainly alcoholism—but you really don't find schizophrenia. These were areas that happened during the asylum era, and I think that there's a connection there.

If we want to think coherently about what this problem is that we have to develop solutions to reckon with, then I don't think that the public, the man on the street, should be dismissed when they draw such a close connection between mental illness and homelessness. You can talk about what percentage of the total homeless population in America has a serious mental illness, has schizophrenia. It may be, statistically speaking, less than half, especially if you're including in that children, homeless families, and so forth. But when you're talking about the hardest cases, the cases that drive so much of the sense of disgrace and so much public outcry, untreated mental illness is a major part of this problem. We're not wrong to think of it as a defining feature of it.

Brian Anderson: The favored policy response to the modern homeless condition is called Housing First. You've written about this idea at some length for City Journal. You give it a full treatment in the book. What is this idea of Housing First, who advocates it, and does it work or does it not?

Stephen Eide: Well, the response to homelessness, once that problem was defined in the early 1980s, took a little time to develop, and Housing First people settled on that response as the way in which we wanted our homeless service systems to be designed. We've got all kinds of other parts of the welfare state, all kinds of other programs. We need programs specifically for the homeless. They're going to operate along Housing First lines. That was a decision that was made in the 2000s, and the influence of this theory, Housing First, just got tighter and tighter over time.

It means we give people . . . The only serious solution to homelessness is to give people subsidized housing. Yes, homeless people have all these other problems, but the most important thing is to maximize resources to subsidize housing. The model they favor is called permanent supportive housing, meaning housing with some kind of services attached to it. That's what you do. You put people in housing, and then you work on these other programs later, but the housing has to come first.

This was touted. The reason why this is so influential is because people really believed this was going to end homelessness. All across the nation, beginning in the George Bush administration, actually, communities developed these 10-year plans to end homelessness, and it's all going to be through this Housing First philosophy. Well, comparing where we were 2005, 2010, and where we are now, we certainly haven't ended homelessness, and it's just gotten worse.

I think the Housing First proponents really have a lot to answer for by this point. There are a lot of questions to be asked about the underlying research that drove so much of this policy push. However, at the moment, there's still a very powerful commitment to Housing First at the federal level and in the hotspot places like California and New York, where this homelessness remains the number one issue.

Brian Anderson: Now, I travel from city to city. You go to San Francisco; homelessness seems to be just everywhere. It is hard to avoid. You go to Miami or Houston—warm, prosperous cities like San Francisco; the problem doesn't seem nearly as bad, at least doing some kind of an eye test as you walk through the city. Not that there's not homelessness in Houston, but you don't see the same kind of encampments. At least, I didn't. I wonder if that's your sense as well, and if there are certain things that San Francisco is doing wrong, or Los Angeles, where the problem has gotten very bad, whether LA is doing something wrong compared to places like Houston.

Stephen Eide: Yeah. Well, I certainly, personally, credit the housing part of the problem. I'm convinced by the literature—there's a strong amount of academic literature saying that the rents drive a lot of this problem. The rents are very high in California. But particularly when you're comparing LA and San Francisco now versus 20 years ago, the public safety dimension of it, this attitude of accommodation towards living in public, that's a real change. There was always some version of this problem in California, but it's just spread. It seems to have gotten more uncontrolled in terms of the extremes of the behavior you're seeing and just the magnitude of it, seeing it more places. There was always Skid Row in LA, but now Venice some days seems just as bad as Skid Row.

That's an area where comparing California now versus California 20, 30 years ago, and also California versus these other communities, where I think you really do have to reckon with the public safety dimension of this. What is the role of police and law enforcement? Police and law enforcement have always had some sort of role in responding to this problem going back through American history. We didn't like the way they responded earlier in the 20th century, so we changed that and we placed a lot of restraints on police behavior. Yet, at the same time, when things get out of control in the streets, we're still demanding that police do something about the problem. This incoherence of what the role for police should be is really at a peak in California, and they're living the consequences of it.

Brian Anderson: Some of these cities with very bad homelessness problems right now, San Francisco we mentioned, LA, Seattle would be another one, they've become magnets for the drug addicted, in part, I think, because these cities are offering free drug equipment, access to so-called safe injection sites, sometimes even providing access to drugs for those looking to shoot up or get high. New York has an obvious and growing crisis, or at least a bad crisis, with the mentally ill, many of whom are, as you've noted, totally unsheltered.

Each era in your history of homelessness seems to last for four or five decades. If that pattern were to hold, we'd be pretty close to being due for a new era to begin. What, in your view, is more likely looking to the future, that the next several decades we'll just see more of this crisis continuing—that has accelerated in the 2020s, but that has been going on for a while now—or that policymakers are really going to step up and figure out this problem and deal with this problem in an intelligent, effective way?

Stephen Eide: Yeah, it's really hard to see. The type of change that are under consideration on the public safety front, on the mental health front in places like California and New York, they're so modest. It's such baby-step-type stuff. It's always possible that things will turn around, that something unexpected will at least change the shape of the problem, but it's just very difficult to imagine because you're so locked into the current debate, and the options which are on the table are such minor, just marginal differences from the course that we're currently on.

It is the case that, yes, the poor have always been with us. What to do with mentally ill people, we've never had a perfect answer to that, but we've made different answers to that. Certainly, it's possible that 20, 30 years from now . . . We're closer now to the situation in 1980 than 1980 was to 1960. There was a very rapid change. The mentally ill just started showing up on skid row in a way that they had never been before, and also in parks and train stations. Where are these people coming from? Social history does move like that.

Brian Anderson: You've worked in this area for a while now. I wonder, dealing with the nonprofit sector, are you seeing any groups that are doing a particularly good job in working with the homeless in New York or other cities?

Stephen Eide: Well, before Housing First got going, there were service providers. There were programs that were set up. They were more work-oriented. There were faith-based organizations that went back over a century by this point, and those kind of fell out of favor. Some of them are still around, they're hanging on, but they haven't benefited as much from this really historic expansion in homeless services funding that happened throughout the 2010s.

There are organizations, like The Doe Fund in New York City, that could play a somewhat larger role, I think, in dealing with the crisis. I think if we're going to be respectful of the diverse nature of the problem, how it really is a question of these different problems grouped under this one umbrella term, we have to understand that a service provider is only going to deal with a particular part of it. I'm all for rediverting resources away from certain solutions and more towards other solutions. We could do a lot more on that front, because there's a ton of money in homeless services right now, despite the fact that outcomes are so disappointing.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Steve. The book is called Homelessness in America: The History and Tragedy of an Intractable Social Problem. It's really probably the best overview of homelessness in America that you could read. It is out, if not now, very soon. Right, Steve? When is the actual release date of the book?

Stephen Eide: The publication date is June 2, and I think we're going to hit it.

Brian Anderson: Great. Please check out Stephen Eide's work as well on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. As always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, give us a five-star rating, please, on iTunes.

Steve, thanks very much for being on. It's always great to have you on the show.

Stephen Eide: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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