The Invisible Issue

The start of February saw temperatures in the midwestern United States dip to 25 degrees below zero, with wind chills reaching a life-threatening minus 60 degrees. In Chicago, 80,000 people spent their days in fear, worrying even more than usual about where they would sleep that night. Some made their way to shelters. Others scraped together enough money to rent a motel room for the night. Still others were picked up by mobile warming shelters, essentially buses with the heat turned up. Some of Chicago’s homeless population spent their nights outside, gathered in encampments and huddled around propane tanks to keep them warm. The dangers faced by those without a place to sleep were widely discussed online, on television, and in the papers. For a brief moment, homelessness was on the minds of the nation.

Policy surrounding homelessness and housing, especially in urban areas, is often left up to local governments and confined to local political discussion. Localities are well suited to tackle the issue on a day-to-day and case-by-case basis, like what happened in Chicago. However, in order to significantly decrease the homeless population in our country, broad, comprehensive, and life-changing policy is needed. This is best accomplished at the national level, yet the federal government does very little to address the more than half a million homeless people in America. This needs to change.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that around 554,000 people do not have a home to stay in at any given time. Over a third of these people spend their nights outside. Each case has a different story behind it. A surprise eviction leads to a person not being able to find another home in time. An accident like a fire or flood makes a house unsafe to live in. All too often, domestic violence and drug abuse does the same. Those that lack the social network to stay with friends or the funds to put themselves up in a hotel room for the night often end up sleeping in a shelter or on the streets. Temporary cases of homelessness are devastating and dangerous to those that experience them, but are often caused by isolated incidents and thus are difficult to prevent. However, temporary homelessness can, and often does, lead to long-term homelessness caused by systematic flaws in our country. The federal government has a powerful role to play in fixing these issue, starting with making housing more affordable.

Homelessness is a market failure in the truest sense. Housing prices have risen to levels such that not everyone can afford to own or even rent a home. Thus, the market has not allocated houses in a way that is socially beneficial and efficient. The government recognizes this and has long used subsidies and tax breaks to encourage real estate developers to build affordable housing units. However, this effort has not been strong enough to create significant change. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the United States is short 7.2 million affordable rental homes. This shortage is consistent across the country, as no state has met even 60% of its affordable housing need. It falls to the federal government to increase its efforts to provide more low-income housing.

The problem is not that developers aren’t building houses—construction has ticked up slowly for the past decade following the 2008 financial crisis—but that too much of that building has been of higher-priced homes. To shift construction towards affordable housing, federal programs that provide incentives for this sort of development must be expanded. One such program is Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), which allow investors to claim tax credits on their federal taxes when they invest in affordable housing development projects. Another is the Housing Trust Fund (HTF), which provides federal funds, earmarked for affordable housing subsidies, to states for the states to use at their discretion. Expansions of both of these measures were proposed in the last session of Congress. Neither bill got out of committee.

Another approach is to make existing housing more affordable to low-income families by providing them with tenant-based vouchers to offset rent costs. These vouchers cover up to 70% of rent once a family finds a place to live. However, these vouchers often fall short in truly helping low-income families. The Fair Market Rent (FMR) estimates that these vouchers are based off are not well tuned to variations in housing prices throughout localities. The same FMR applies across large areas and does not account for how neighborhood, proximity to transportation, and other factors impact rents. This limits the options that low-income renters have when searching for housing. Expanding the use of Small Area FMRs to more metropolitan and suburban areas will increase the accuracy of tenant-based vouchers to local rents. Furthermore, landlords are allowed to refuse to accept these vouchers, leading to discrimination against low-income families in the rental market. In order to keep all options available to low-income renters, this practice must be outlawed.

A third solution, seemingly radical but deceptively intuitive, was implemented in Utah in 2004: the state gave homes to the homeless. This approach focused on a small but crucial subset of the homeless population: the chronic homeless. A chronically homeless person is defined by HUD as someone who is “either (1) an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, OR (2) an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years,”. They represent a little over 10% of the homeless population, but their cases are the most difficult to turn around. They also use the most state resources, whether in a shelter, in the hospital, or in jail. In fact, giving them a home actually reduces costs for the state in the long-run. The state of Utah worked with shelters and other organizations to identify the chronically homeless and put them in homes. By getting them off the streets the stresses of homelessness were taken away, allowing participants to overcome the obstacles in their life that had brought them to the streets in the first place, such as physical disability, drug addiction, or another type of mental illness. As a result, the number of chronically homeless in Utah dropped by 72%.

Implementing a program like Utah’s on a national scale would likely be politically and administratively infeasible. But expanding and reforming LIHTC, the HTF, and tenant-based vouchers would be much more palatable to the American public and would work through established mechanisms. Unfortunately, there isn’t political momentum for comprehensive legislation to help solve homelessness. It just isn’t on the minds of our policy makers. For this to change—for the invisible to become visible—two things need to happen. First, it needs to be made easier for the homeless to vote. Only roughly 10% of the homeless population votes, primarily because it is very difficult to register to vote when you don’t have a home. Homeless people can register to vote using a shelter, a county courthouse, or even a park bench as their address, but these registrations are almost always challenged. Worse, walking into a polling place and having to state your address as a bench in the nearby town square is incredibly demeaning. Voter ID laws only serve to exacerbate this problem. The same obstacles that make registering to vote difficult without a permanent address complicate the processes of obtaining a drivers license, compounding on the barriers to the ballot that homeless people face. Making it easier for homeless people to vote, and thereby increasing turnout, will help to hold politicians accountable to all of their constituents. Secondly, the non-homeless need to go to the polls with the pain and fear of someone sleeping outside in minus 60 degree weather at the front of our minds.  All too often, homelessness is viewed as an economic issue (I myself am guilty of this in this article), leading us to ignore the moral truth that all human beings have the right to a roof over their head. Shifting how the issue of homelessness is framed, not just in the national conversation but in our own minds, is a crucial first step towards change that ensures this right. Only when we do this can we push policymakers to find the courage to fight to put every American in a safe, warm home.