‘Misguided’ government policies exacerbate US homelessness crisis: report

Homelessness in the United States has increased dramatically over the past decade and is now at crisis levels in many major cities. It is also one of the most pressing issues among voters in many communities right now.

According to a new study by the Discovery Institute, the total number of homeless people across the country is approaching 1.2 million, well over the half million normally reported by the media.

Even before COVID-19, homelessness was increasing despite huge increases in government welfare spending, the report says.

Robert Marbut, Jr., a renowned homelessness expert and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, believes that before the federal government can effectively address the problem of homelessness, it must first understand its causes.

At a luncheon in Washington on Oct. 12, Marbut presented his new research, How Congress Can Reform Government’s Misguided Homelessness Policies. He argued that homelessness should be treated primarily as a mental and behavioral health issue and not as a housing issue.

Marbut also served as executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness under former President Donald Trump from 2019 to 2021.

At the heart of the homeless problem, according to Marbut, is the “Housing First” policy, which gives the homeless unconditional access to subsidized housing. This policy has been the government’s main approach to tackling homelessness over the past 20 years.

Advocates of the Housing First strategy believe that permanent housing is the best way to address the problem and that all homeless people should be given shelter immediately and without strings attached.

According to critics, the Obama administration introduced Housing First as a one-size-fits-all solution in 2013, which has made the problem of homelessness worse. As part of his strategic plan to solve the problem, former President Barack Obama pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015, chronic homelessness by 2017, and family homelessness by 2020.

“The results were catastrophic,” says Marbut.

Marbut claims that the “housing first” approach has in practice become a “housing only” solution. The policy has had negative consequences, such as removing the requirement for homeless people to participate in effective support programs and therapy, and removing federal funding for all-around addiction and mental health treatment services.

An aerial view of people gathered near a homeless encampment in the afternoon heat in Phoenix, Arizona, July 21, 2022. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“By ignoring the root causes of homelessness — like untreated mental illness combined with substance use disorders — Housing First is at best an expensive short-term patch that only treats the symptoms of a person’s life on the street,” Marbut stated in the report.

In the five years before the outbreak of COVID-19, the number of vulnerable people suffering from homelessness increased by more than 20 percent, even as subsidized housing vouchers rose by more than 40 percent, according to the report.

The paper intentionally excludes all post-COVID numbers to show the problem existed before the pandemic. The report also notes that the Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is “artificially lowering” the number of homeless by excluding those living in quick resettlements and permanent supportive housing.

dispute about the matter

In recent years, Marbut has come under fire for turning down Housing First from those who believe the root cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. They argue that mental health issues are only a small part of the problem.

Advocates also defend “a flexible approach,” stating that the security of a home will help homeless people thrive in treatment, work, education and health.

However, a study by the Manhattan Institute found that Housing First has done a poor job of tackling serious mental illness and drug addiction, as well as helping the homeless find employment and overcome social isolation.

Epoch Times photo
Pam Bejarno, 70, has been homeless for months at The Zone, a growing homeless camp in Phoenix. She’s had pretty much everything stolen from her, including her heart meds. Here she is sitting on a medical scooter in the scorching sun on September 18th. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

According to the California Policy Lab, a nonpartisan research center at the University of California, 78 percent of vulnerable homeless people say they suffer from mental illness, and 50 percent say their mental illness has led to their homelessness. In addition, 75 percent of the vulnerable population reported experiencing substance abuse and 51 percent said using drugs or alcohol contributed to their homelessness. These results are based on an analysis of more than 64,000 surveys conducted in 2019.

And California, according to Marbut, was the “perfect experiment” for Housing First because all federal and state homeless assistance funds go exclusively to the program. Despite this, homelessness in the state has risen faster than the national average.

According to Marbut, more homeless people die on the streets every day than American troops are killed abroad.

Bruce Chapman, founder and director of the Discovery Institute, compared the situation to the grim social conditions portrayed in Charles Dickens’ novels.

“It’s Dickensian; it goes back to the things you saw in the 18th and 19th centuries,” Chapman said over lunch. He called on the new Congress to reform the federal government‘s broken policies.

Though homelessness is most noticeable in America’s largest cities, it’s also a growing problem in rural areas, he noted.

Emel Akan


Emel Akan writes on business and economics. Previously, she worked in the financial sector as an investment banker at JPMorgan. She graduated with a master’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University.

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