Many U.S. cities continue to grapple with what to do about homelessness arising from a shortage of affordable housing coupled with local not-in-my-backyard resistance to creating it, according to speakers at a panel on the issue at ULI’s 2017 Fall Meeting in Los Angeles.
Even so, cities are having some success with new solutions, ranging from providing micro-housing as a transition step, to enlisting neighbors of successful affordable developments to speak out at meetings and help persuade other neighborhoods to accommodate similar developments. Panelists urged those in the real estate sector to take a more active role in such innovation.
About 550,000 Americans are homeless on any given night, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Close to seven of ten homeless people take temporary refuge in emergency shelters or transitional housing. The remainder are “unsheltered” homeless, many of whom sleep on the street or gather in makeshift encampments for protection. About one-third of the homeless population consists of families with children.
The persistence of homelessness in America “is alarming for humanitarian reasons, for moral reasons, for business reasons,” said discussion leader Carol Coletta, a senior fellow with the Kresge Foundation’s American Cities Practice.
Though federal data show that the homeless population has declined slightly nationwide, speakers from several major urban areas said they still have sizable numbers of people with no place to live. In Los Angeles County, the local government helped 14,000 people last year find permanent housing, according to Dhakshike Wickrema, an assistant senior deputy for homelessness and mental health for county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
“It’s like we’re in a bottomless pit,” said Wickrema, who lamented that for all the people that the county manages to help escape homelessness, “more people are falling in.”
But those efforts are now being bolstered by county voters’ passage in March of Measure H, which raised the local sales tax by 0.25 percent to raise $355 million annually over the next 10 years to fight homelessness. A 50-member advisory panel, whose members range from business and nonprofit leaders to homeless advocates, is helping decide how and where to allocate the money, Wickrema said. That funding, combined with a $1.2 billion local bond issue passed last November, will help the county gear up to create 1,000 new units of affordable housing annually, she said. It also is helping pay for outreach teams who make the rounds of homeless encampments and connect people with available services.
In Seattle, where 10,000 homeless people live, George Scarola last year became the city’s first cabinet-level homelessness czar. He said the city is deploying a range of solutions, including negotiating with private developers to include more affordable housing in their projects.
“The affordable housing crisis is feeding the homeless crisis in a way that we cannot keep up with, no matter how many shelter beds we provide,” Scarola said.
Seattle has shifted from focusing on providing temporary overnight shelter space to providing what Scarola called “24-hour shelters,” where homeless people can store their possessions, live with partners, and even have pets. The idea is to enable them to have more stable lives as a step toward making the transition out of homelessness.
Seattle also has created seven communities of low-cost micro-unit housing, where homeless people who had been living in encampments can have a roof over their heads and a lock on their doors. Residents band together to maintain the settlements and take pride in keeping the areas neat, he said.
“For people who’ve been living in the streets for ten years, it’s an easier transition” to escaping homelessness, Scarola said.
Pam Wideman, director of housing and neighborhoods for Charlotte, North Carolina, said that city has managed to reduce its homeless population to fewer than 1,500, a drop of 12 percent, in the past year though a combination of measures, one of which was a $20 million public/private endowment that subsidizes housing for the homeless in a fashion similar to the federal government’s Section 8 vouchers.
Charlotte also has managed to break down neighborhood resistance to affordable housing by convincing residents of its benefits to the community. A 2015 study by University of North Carolina at Charlotte researchers found that Moore Place, an 85-unit development that houses the formerly homeless, saved local taxpayers $2.4 million over two years, in part by reducing the number of emergency-room visits and hospital stays by homeless people.
Molly Turner, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and a researcher with the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, said homelessness is a complex problem with multiple structural causes. These include loss of traditional manufacturing jobs and shrinkage of the social safety net over the past several decades, coupled with past failed housing policies and mass incarceration, which has created a segment of former inmates who have difficulty qualifying for affordable housing. In addition, decades of racial discrimination in housing have made it more difficult for African Americans to become homeowners and amass personal wealth.
Turner said family instability also plays a major role in homelessness. Young people who spend their early lives in unstable families or in foster care are at higher risk of becoming homeless, she said.
But Turner pointed to history for encouragement. After the Great Depression of the 1930s, another period when large numbers of people experienced homelessness, the nation managed to reduce the problem. “We got ourselves out of the Great Depression,” she said. “We should be able to do it today.”