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  • Paul Webster

Homelessness: Biden’s Plan to Combat It Is Recycled and Feeble

The Biden administration, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has unveiled its latest strategy to solve homelessness. Its first initiative on homelessness, House America, is perhaps the weakest and most status quo repackaging of the very policies that have led our country and communities to daily witness unbelievable suffering on the street.

Through House America, HUD and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) ignore the serious challenges of solving homelessness. Housing America continues the sole provision of housing despite the overwhelming need to address the mental-illness and behavioral-health crisis plaguing the streets of American cities.

House America simply directs American Rescue Plan dollars to the creation of affordable housing and, poof, homelessness will be solved! Why didn’t we think of that before? The reality is, we have.

This is the same housing-centric strategy that has been in place for more than ten years, with the same unrealistic goals and denial of root causes of homelessness. HUD and USICH think it’s a big deal to offer HUD advisers and industry consultants to communities when it’s been available all along. In fact, technical assistance to communities for homelessness enjoys a separate congressional appropriation of $5 million a year.

The goals of the Biden homelessness team are to remove from the streets no fewer than 100,0000 people experiencing homelessness and to start the development process of 20,000 new units of affordable housing by next year. Here is a tip: To achieve these goals, avoid California. Los Angeles has been working to develop 10,000 units since 2017, with little to show for it but delays, cost overruns, waste, and heartache. According to the website Local Housing Solutions, “as of August 2020, 179 supportive units have been built with HHH funds and another 5,522 are under construction or in pre-development.”

Biden’s plan is laughable on its face. It’s pandering to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and other Housing First ideologues who are in denial about the crisis of the untreated and unhoused mentally ill and drug-addicted. These special interests have exacerbated destitution, morbidity, and mortality by requiring communities to substitute “services” and housing for treatment and clinical interventions.

Instead of repackaging the same old PR about housing as the panacea to homelessness, the administration should get real with the unfettered pathologies on display on Philadelphia’s Kensington Avenue, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Address the fact that Medicaid’s Institute of Mental Diseases exclusion places a cap on reimbursements for state psychiatric beds and capacity, causing a shortage of treatment beds. Deal with Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s (SAMHSA) funding of disability-rights groups that would rather the mentally ill “die on the streets with their rights fully intact” than receive treatment. And give communities the flexibility to choose high-barrier homelessness-assistance approaches that show results in moving people from the streets and into sobriety, employment, and self-sufficiency.

The last five years of Point-in-Time counts reveal that homelessness — particularly chronic homelessness — has increased. Awards to communities have increased 27 percent to more than $12 billion in HUD Continuum of Care awards alone over the last five years, while chronic homelessness has increased by 25 percent. This increase has occurred while the Obama, Trump, and now Biden administrations have emphasized a housing-centric approach toward homelessness. Now with the flood of billions of dollars in CARES Act and American Rescue Plan funding, the feds are providing nothing new but a PR opportunity for mayors and others to preen about housing and homelessness.

House America keeps the weak sauce flowing. Instead of understanding the costly and deadly intersection of homelessness, mental illness, and addiction, the Biden administration continues to whistle past the outdoor asylums and drug encampments to marvel at what could be if we built more affordable housing.

With daily deaths occurring among the homeless — five a day in Los Angeles and three a day in San Francisco — we need to get serious about what’s happening in our communities that is far from whether or not people can afford the rent. It’s past time to recognize the devastation that is occurring to the vulnerable and ill and to the communities in which their pathologies play out. 

Paul Webster is former senior policy adviser on homelessness at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is the founder and director of Hope Street Coalition, an advocacy organization focusing on policy reform at the intersection of homelessness, mental illness, and addiction.

[PW1]HHH is a city-wide bond obligation of $1.2 billion in L.A. to create 10,000 units.

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