On any given night, over 600,000 people are homeless in the United States, and about 3.5 million people experience homelessness every year. Many of these are children kicked out by their families, or veterans suffering from mental illness. Solving the homelessness crisis may seem impossible, but in fact we already have solutions that are working. If we wanted to, we could all but erase homeless completely - so why aren't we?
One of the objections to curing homelessness is cost, but there's clearly fat that can be cut from the budget. The US spent $400 billion on the F-35 fighter program, a fancy jet that doesn't actually work. That money could have been spent giving every homeless person a $600,000 house.
But the US doesn't need to spend $400 billion to cure homelessness - in fact, it doesn't have to spend anything. In 2005, Utah began an ambitious experiment to cure homelessness, by simply giving away apartments to the homeless. The result? The state actually saved money overall, by reducing the costs for medical expenses (sleeping outside in the cold isn't healthy) and the legal costs associated with prosecuting the homeless for crimes like vagrancy. Sam Tsemberis notes that, "Ironically, ending homelessness is actually cheaper than continuing to treat the problem. This would not only benefit the people who are homeless; it would be healing for the rest of us to live in a more compassionate and just nation."
Best of all, the rate of homelessness has plummeted by 72%. This can be the model nationwide, and it's already becoming successful in other states such as Colorado.
Providing the homeless with housing instead of shelters is more effective at getting them off the streets, as shelters often drive away the homeless by splitting up families, banning pets, proselytizing religion, discriminating against LGBT individuals, or making some people feel physically unsafe.
If curing homelessness is so simple, why hasn't this solution already been implemented? Tsemberis says, "It's not a matter of whether we know how to fix the problem. Homelessness is not a disease like cancer or Alzheimer's where we don't yet have a cure. We have the cure for homelessness "” it's housing. What we lack is political will."
Why don't we have the political will? It's partly because of a phenomenon urban geographer Neil Smith has termed "Revanchism." Smith says that modern urban sensibilities have made many see the homeless as a scourge to be shoved out of sight, not as victims in need of assistance. "Laws against begging, panhandling, sleeping or urinating on sidewalks and in other public spaces are increasingly used to cleanse the public spaces...As cities compete aggressively to make themselves attractive places to live in and in which to invest, they are more willing to impose harsh penalties on those people seen as 'undesirable.'" Florida has gone even further, making it illegal to share food with the homeless, and many municipalities have followed suit.
The irony, of course, is that the homeless would not need to sleep on the streets (and lower property values) if they had a home of their own to sleep in. Even from this perspective, housing the homeless is a net benefit to society. Housing the homeless would save us money, help those in need, and save lives. So-called "Tiny Houses" can be built for as little as $30, but we wouldn't need to build any homes if we wanted to house the homeless right away. There's over 18 million empty homes in the US, enough for every homeless person to have six.