It's Not a Housing Problem

REVIEW: 'Homelessness in America: The History and Tragedy of an Intractable Social Problem'

A homeless camp in Washington, D.C. / Getty Images
June 26, 2022

"Look, Mom, that one has a Christmas tree." That's what one of my kids yelled out while we were going with some friends to Teddy Roosevelt Island last winter. It's true, as they noticed, that the homeless encampments along the Potomac were more scenic and elaborately decorated than the ones in New York City. But the effect has been the same. Over the course of the past two years, cities across the United States have been dotted with people living on the streets. As urban residents retreated from public spaces during the pandemic, homeless populations took over. The effects have ranged from parks that reek of urine to people shooting up on street corners and pushing commuters in front of subway trains. One friend had narrowly avoided a can of Redbull that was hurled at his head during a lunchtime stroll in midtown Manhattan.

The question of how we got to this point, though, is not as easily answered as it might seem. Though it is certainly true that population exodus during COVID and the retreat of law enforcement in the wake of the George Floyd protests contributed both to public disorder and violence in much of the country, the origins and expansion of homelessness in particular have a much longer and more complex history. (For instance, places like Detroit that have a much higher rate of crime also have much lower rates of homelessness.) Stephen Eide's new book, Homelessness in America: The History and Tragedy of an Intractable Social Problem, sheds new light on this issue.

The language is eminently readable; unfortunately the actual text is not. And it's not just my aging eyes. Do yourself a favor and get the e-book. I hate to harp on a problem that is not entirely the fault of the author, but this is a topic that deserves broad (not just academic) attention and I might have skipped the 30-page bibliography in favor of spacing out the 150 pages of miniscule font a little more.

To the substance: Eide first adds some important historical context to the debate. The homeless population has always been predominantly men as it is today, but other aspects of it were different. It used to be much larger, for instance. Nationwide estimates in the early 20th century ranged from 500,000 to 5 million. As Eide notes, "adjusted for population, any of those estimates would dwarf the current count of around 580,000." A researcher in the 1920s noted that the homeless population in Chicago alone was 30,000 in good times and 75,000 in hard times. In the late 19th century one historian estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of the populations had a family member who had used a homeless shelter.

Perhaps in part because homelessness was so common it was not thought of in the same way. In earlier eras, hobos, tramps, and bums were all the subjects of sometimes humorous, sometimes romanticized portrayals in movies and music. "These 'knights of the tie and rail' eschewed steady work for independence and adventure," Eide writes. "In our day homeless advocates strenuously deny that anyone chooses to be homeless. The hobos and tramps of the late nineteenth century took pride in having chosen to be homeless."

Indeed, the fact that these homeless of yore worked made them significantly different from today's homeless population, who are typically not employed. Today's population is disproportionately black, while the homeless used to be almost entirely white. In a legally segregated society black people could not safely wander from place to place without shelter. Alcoholism and substance abuse have always been problems among the homeless. Eide notes that "our focus on the connection between modern homelessness and drug addiction (crack was the concern in the 1980s, meth and opioids are now) can cause us to overlook how bad alcoholism was in former eras."

So what has changed? The first is the prevalence of serious mental illness among the homeless due in large part to the widespread deinstitutionalization of the 1960s and '70s. The idea originally was that those who were being served in psychiatric institutions would then make use of a new network of community mental health centers. Critics say that not enough of these were built, but Eide notes that CMHCs "served a different clientele with easier-to-treat maladies and, in some notable cases, didn't function as much of a medical facility but rather a center of political activism." While the number of mental health providers and spending on mental health vastly increased in the second half of the 20th century, much of this "went to people with milder mental health disorders."

While institutionalization is commonly thought of today as a draconian and needless process instigated by government bureaucrats, it was actually families who, often after years of trying to care for mentally ill at home, decided they had no other option but to commit a loved one. Unfortunately, this is all but impossible in today's environment. Not only is there a severe shortage of mental health beds, but meeting the legal threshold for involuntary commitment—even of someone who has previously shown violent tendencies—is extremely rare.

Eide describes a sector that has been plagued by a lot of poor thinking, including the elevation of "lived experience" as a means for deciding how to help the homeless. If a person with mental illness says that they prefer to live in a tent in Times Square and enjoy using opioids, does that mean that we have to let them? Sometimes, as Eide notes, listening to "lived experience" produces contradictory edicts. "Homeless people demand that shelters be made safer but also criticize shelters for restricting clients' personal freedom." Eide wisely recommends not just consulting the homeless themselves but also the families who care for them. "Families could explain to homeless policymakers what programs and reforms could have helped them better manage their homeless relative, and, thus, may have prevented their descent into the streets."

The policy that has unfortunately taken hold of the entire sector for the past few decades has been "Housing First," the idea that if we can just provide the homeless with some form of permanent shelter, then all the other problems will either be diminished or disappear entirely. If you just give people housing, then they will have an address to give an employer and they can get a job. If you give people housing then their health will improve and they won't be as likely to engage in alcohol or drug abuse.

Eide shows that there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of the Housing First approach, and in many cases offering housing with no strings attached merely serves to remove any incentive that the homeless might have to get their lives back on track. Supportive housing, though, that requires residents to attend sobriety programs or engage in some kind of work, is less popular but seems to produce better results. "To improve lives," Eide writes, "government should sometimes structure people's choices using material inducements."

A second change has been the lack of cheap single-room occupancy housing. While these kind of residences that were once found on Skid Row or in the Tenderloin District were hardly great places to live, they did provide a way for people who engaged in only casual labor or on subsistence level wages to find shelter. They may not have had a permanent place to stay but they were also not sleeping in a public park. Zoning laws have largely eliminated such housing. But in an effort to improve housing for the poor it is possible that we have effectively pushed some to choose between shelters and the street.

The final change has been that a larger percentage of the homeless today are families. One reason for this is that women are more willing and legally able to leave abusive relationships. Unfortunately, they often don't have the financial wherewithal to set up their own household right away. Families are still not a large portion of the homeless population and Eide is right to point out that the stories reporting thousands of homeless children are including children whose families are "doubling up," that is, they are living with relatives.

It is true that the conditions may be cramped and not up to the standards that we are used to, but as Eide notes, "the doubled-up population is much less at risk of being victimized than the sheltered and unsheltered homeless population."

Doubling up is, writes Eide, "a 'fix-it-first'-style solution to homelessness, a way to work with what we've got. … Maybe instead of citing statistics on doubling up as evidence for a broader homelessness crisis that merits increased investment in affordable housing, we could explore ways to make doubling up more tolerable."

Like many of the social problems plaguing urban areas, homelessness has suffered from advocates who put ideology over practical solutions. Demands for more money and more sensitivity to lived experience have not actually done much to help those who are most vulnerable. The tide may be turning. New York mayor Eric Adams has been systematically taking down some of the tent cities that have been erected around town. But Eide points out that "no American city has ever brought unsheltered homelessness permanently under control after first allowing it to get out of control." For anyone interested in the ounce of prevention approach, Homelessness in America is a good place to start.

Homelessness in America: The History and Tragedy of an Intractable Social Problem
by Stephen Eide
Rowman & Littlefield, 258 pp., $35

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women's Forum and the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.