Homelessness: the emergency that never ends

Buildings sit empty while homeless Americans live on the street

There's a lot of hand-wringing about the growing number of homeless Americans, currently estimated at nearly 600,000, and also about the rising cost of housing. The two are, of course, closely related but most of the discussion about homelessness ignores the primary reason people don't have homes: they can't afford them.

Whether we're talking about $1 million middle-class suburban homes or $3,000 a month two-bedroom apartments, the cost of having a place to hang one's hat has risen exponentially in recent years, and continues to do so while average income has been largely stagnant, forcing a surprising number of otherwise productive citizens into the streets.

While everyone has opinions about the crisis, many are operating with old or false data. In particular, homeless people may not all fit the common profile.

"Professionals in the homeless field will tell you that a surprising number of their clients hold down jobs, have children, pets, cars and all the other things we associate with being a working-class American," said Carol Sainthilaire, director of The Waterfront Project, a not-for-profit New Jersey organization that provides free legal services to people facing or already experiencing homelessness.

"It only takes one missed rent payment to be on the street, sometimes not even that," Sainthilaire said. "As neighborhoods gentrify and family homes turn into $400 a night Airbnbs, landlords often evict tenants for no particular reason other than their desire to make more money from their property."

A Baptist minister in the Washington, D.C. suburbs was distributing food to people in a tent city that had sprung up in the high-tech center of Reston, Virginia, when he encountered a nicely dressed woman who volunteered to help him hand out the food and check up on the tent city residents.

"I thought she was a social worker or maybe a volunteer with another group but it turned out she was homeless herself," he said. She had lost her longtime apartment and hadn't found anything she could afford even though she has held down a fulltime job for years, she told him. Apartments in Reston currently rent for an average of $2,116 a month for 772 square feet, according to Apartments.com.  

Homelessness in the D.C. area, as in many cities, was once largely confined to the downtown area, where large government buildings and spacious grounds offered lots of nooks and crannies for those seeking shelter. But the problem has now spread to the region's affluent suburbs, where the homeless often include federal workers and first responders who can't afford to live in the area they serve.

Clay LeConey via Unsplash

Causes of homelessness

While it's true that many homeless people have drug or alcohol problems or suffer from mental illness, social workers and volunteers say that just as many, if not more, simply can't find housing they can afford.

A 2020 study conducted by  the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that “a $100 increase in median rent was associated with a 9% increase in the estimated homelessness rate.” The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), warns that increasing rents directly increases the "risk for people becoming homeless and serve as barriers to people who are trying to exit homelessness."

And homelessness, like other social problems, tends to feed on itself. Once someone is homeless, with no fixed address, it becomes harder not only to find work but also to find new housing, since landlords generally don't want to rent to people who are homeless or who have been homeless in the past, even if they were homeless only because of financial problems beyond their control.

Just as a major cause of bankruptcy is medical expenses, bills resulting from a hospital stay can also be the last economic straw that leads to homelessness.

One remedy for homelessness

So what's the best way to avoid becoming homeless or to find a place to live if you're already homeless? Good question. Everyone has an opinion and many people are willing to do what they can to help homeless people but despite the billions of dollars being spent, tent cities and other gatherings of unsheltered people continue to line the nation's streets and public places. Even those who run the programs often admit that they are not solving the problem.

An often overlooked solution is providing emergency funding to those at greatest risk of becoming homeless. To test the impact of the idea, researchers at Notre Dame recently conducted a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the effect of emergency financial assistance (EFA) on families receiving support.

The study, conducted in Santa Clara County, California, evaluated individuals and families at imminent risk of being evicted or becoming homeless. It provided an average of nearly $2,000 to eligible families to help them pay rent, utilities and other related expenses.

The researchers found that people offered emergency financial help were 81 percent less likely to become homeless within six months of enrollment and 73 percent less likely within 12 months, as reported in their study recently published by The Review of Economics and Statistics.

"Policymakers at all levels are struggling to make really hard decisions about how to allocate scarce resources to address this pervasive problem,” said James Sullivan, a Notre Dame economics professor. “But this study shows that you can actually target the intervention to those at risk, which moves the needle on homelessness enough to justify making the investment.”

More inventory would help

In the simplest free-market terms, the housing crisis is one of inadequate inventory, which drives up the price of housing and thereby increases the number of people who are priced out of the market.

Mayors and city managers tend to come up with big projects that add a handful of housing spaces, generating a lot of fanfare and ribbon-cutting but making just the tiniest dent in the problem. A better option might be to convert existing inventory to make it available at more reasonable cost, some experts suggest.

One way to stimulate construction of new housing is through zoning laws. Many residential neighborhoods are turning into what amount to mini-hotel zones, as investors buy up single-family homes and turn them into Airbnbs, driving up prices and crowding out longtime residents.

In resort areas like Palm Springs, California, luxurious condos sit vacant most of the year, awaiting the arrival of their snowbird owners. This is puzzling to Canadian visitors like Jim Mactier, a British Columbia farmer who spends his winters in Palm Springs. He also has a condo in Vancouver where he spends a few weeks a year when he takes a break from farming.

His Palm Springs condo sits vacant most of the year, as do thousands of others in the desert oasis. But not his Vancouver condo. Both provincial and city legislation in British Columbia require that a vacant property be made available as a long-term rental for a minimum of six months of each year.

“I appreciate the income I get from the rental and agree with it in principle to open up more available housing," Mactier said. "It generates income and with someone in the apartment, I don't have to worry about pipes bursting or other calamities occurring when no one's there."

"I don't know why they don't do that in Palm Springs," he said.

One reason, of course, is that Americans are much less inclined to go along what they regard as collectivist schemes, like being required to rent their vacant property to people who need it. Even much less intrusive projects, like a $39 million service center for the homeless that Palm Springs is building on its north side, are highly controversial and bitterly imposed by many residents.

And that service center won't be permanent housing. As new luxury hotels and condos rise all around Palm Springs, there's no new affordable housing in site or even in the planning stages.

"There hasn't been an affordable housing unit built in the city of Palm Springs in over 12 years," said Greg Rodriguez, who works in the county housing and workforce solutions department, in a recent NPR interview.

How about those office buildings?

An abandoned office building outside Washington, D.C. Staff photo

Then there are the downtowns of big American cities. There's much concern about the crisis facing commercial real estate as offices in city centers and suburban office parks sit empty. One obvious answer that would at least partly satisfy both landlords and homeless people is to convert the office buildings to housing, at least as a temporary measure until more suitable housing can be built.

The objection always raised to this is that office buildings can't be easily converted to apartments. They don't have enough bathrooms, the windows are too far apart and so forth.

While it's true that converting a high-raise office building to a luxury condo development is difficult, it's not luxurious condos that homeless people need. It's a place to be safe from the elements and from street violence. Military personnel, college students and many other people live in semi-dormitory conditions, often with communal bathrooms and lacking the lavish kitchens that populate suburbia.

But a secure, semi-private living space with a bathroom down the hall beats sleeping on the street just about any day.

The all too usual response to homelessness in big cities is to call out the police to roust the homeless and run them out of town, or at least to another neighborhood, hardly a long-term solution.

Maybe a little rent control?

Rent control is one of those topics that sets off loud debates that eventually sputter off into nothingness. But it has been practiced more or less successfully for more than a century in New York City and elsewhere. The existence of rent-controlled apartments has kept many New York families housed happily and securely for generations without landlords being hurled into penury.

It's not without its problems, however. Investors are reluctant to sink money into rent-stabilized properties and the result is that new properties don't get built and property owners look for loopholes that will let them convert existing properties to condos or co-ops.

California will vote on rent control in the 2024 election, which could usher in the largest rent control experiment ever. “People are getting gouged, and the working class is hurting,” said Rafael Bautista, the director of the San Diego Tenants Union.

“The reality in San Diego is that once people are evicted it’s very hard to find another place to move into. Rent control can help people stay inside their homes,” Bautista explained in a Fox5 interview. Similar sentiments can be found around the country but California's unique proposition provisions make it easier to quickly put such proposals to a vote.

Rent control in some form might at least slow the spread of Airbnb-style commercial conversions and thus cool off heated real estate prices and rents, potentially holding down the number of newly homeless people.

How to avoid losing your home

One thing about homelessness that often gets overlooked is that it's a lot like being disabled – it can happen to just about anyone at anytime. A simple blood clot, car accident or errant gang of cells can turn a healthy, vigorous person into one who needs help with everyday tasks because of mobility issues or medical complications.

The same is true of housing. A sudden job loss, serious accident or illness or a disaster like a hurricane, flood or tornado can leave just about anyone at least temporarily homeless.

As climate volatility worsens, there is likely to be a big increase in the number of solid citizens who find themselves living on the street because insurance didn't cover their loss, the shelters are full, there are no affordable properties and all the other usual reasons.

So the unfortunate answer to the question is that, just as no one can guarantee that they will remain healthy and vigorous, no one can guarantee that they won't become a homeless person at some point.

While there may be no ironclad guarantees for anyone, more effective programs to prevent and relieve homelessness would benefit everyone. Sullivan, the Notre Dame researcher, said his group's study helps point the path to a solution.

“Policymakers at all levels are struggling to make really hard decisions about how to allocate scarce resources to address this pervasive problem,” he said. “But this study shows that you can actually target the intervention to those at risk, which moves the needle on homelessness enough to justify making the investment.”

And, according to Sullivan, money spent to prevent homelessness actually turns out to be an investment rather than a liability.

“Our estimates suggest that the benefits to homelessness prevention exceed the costs.” His group estimated that communities get $2.47 back in benefits per net dollar spent on emergency financial assistance.


If you or anyone you know need access to housing resources, help is available at HUD.gov's Homelessness Assistance page.