Low-income and homeless persons across the nation, including in the nation’s capital, are likely to become increasingly vulnerable during the Trump era, although their particular fate is often neglected in the popular press. The likely impact on these populations is particularly evident given the President’s picks for secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Ben Carson) and for secretary of Health and Human Services (Tom Price). First of all, neither of these nominees bothered to mention this population group during their confirmation hearings, suggesting that, for the next four years, they are unlikely to address any of its concerns. Dr. Carson has, for one, indicated that his plan is simply to get individuals out of public housing; but to go where? Who knows. Representative Price, who has been a longtime opponent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), will also head a department directly in charge of services affecting homeless persons. Like Carson, he obviously has no ACA replacement in mind; the repeal of which will also carry massive repercussions, particularly for the homeless.
But what does the average American think about the homeless? Unfortunately, if you ask them, you will likely receive a response replete with stereotypes, hyperbole, and factual inaccuracies. And our nation’s capital is no different—though “average” in D.C. is not quite what it is across most of the country: Median household income is on the rise at $93,294, and there is a steady stream of the highly educated (56.8 percent have a college degree) moving to the city. Two years ago, the top 20 percent in DC have average incomes that are approximately 8 times higher than the bottom 20 percent, which is a disparity that is higher than any of the 50 states.
Despite being a left-leaning and progressive locale, pushback from D.C. residents over Homeward DC—a five-year plan to make homelessness “rare, brief, and non-recurring,” touted by Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness—has highlighted to what extent to which the average person in this town holds the same negative (and often inaccurate) perceptions of this population as they do elsewhere across the country.
These negative perceptions have led to the rise of policies designed to further marginalize homeless individuals across neighborhoods and has prevented the city from adequately addressing the needs of its homeless. As a consequence, any homelessness policies must be simple enough to capture the minds of legislators, direct enough to deal with the root causes of homelessness, and comprehensive enough to address populations who may slip into homelessness through failed economic and housing policies.
The Problem of Homelessness
Recent estimates from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness suggest that 8,350 people in D.C. were homeless in 2016, which is a 14 percent increase from the previous year. Even more surprising, the same agency estimates that 1,491 D.C. families in 2016 experienced at least one night without stable housing, a number that rose by 32 percent from 2015. To put those numbers further into perspective, the number of homeless families in D.C. has increased by 103 percent since 2009.
The problems facing the homeless are two-fold: As mentioned, the first is the obvious individual-level biases against this group, as structural forces outside of individuals’ control shape the narrative and treatment of the homeless. People are often taught to fear the unknown, and this “othering” has long been used to characterize those who do not have stable housing as “dangerous,” “drug-addicted,” “mentally ill,” and “unstable.” It may be true that some people who have these traits are also homeless. But a review performed last year by The Washington Post found that, on average, shelters and other housing facilities that service homeless populations rarely lead to higher crime rates; in fact homeless people are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of it. Further, estimates from the 2015 point-in-time homeless count indicate that, among single homeless individuals in D.C., only 13 percent suffered from severe mental illness and 15 percent were chronic substance abusers. But the prevalence of these issues are more likely to be visible among this group for the simple reason that they live outdoors and are, thus, fully exposed.
It is also true that no one is isolated from larger social structures and from those who control them—those on executive boards, business owners, and those among the political elite. Here is where the systemic problem with homelessness begins: Most organizations that are center or left-of-center focus on the role of economics (e.g., low-wage jobs, diminished public assistance funds, rising costs of living) and housing policy as the causes of homelessness. However, individuals who are taught to fear and even hate homeless individuals often blame the current residential problems on the individuals’ lack of ambition, while arguing that the physical presence of the homeless is bad for business owners, tourism, and town pride. Thus, those with decision-making power are much more likely to propose social control measures such as removing homeless individuals from public areas (which is unilaterally ineffective in solving homelessness) or punitive measures such as banning activities like sleeping and begging in public spaces (which are blatantly discriminatory).
Resistance to Ending Homelessness
From a policy standpoint, we know what to do if we want to end homelessness: Bring stakeholders to the table (nonprofits, business owners, private citizens, city officials), coordinate the effort to provide necessary housing (i.e., come up with a plan to provide housing), and fund it with a sustainable revenue source (such as taking a small percentage of a city’s budget)—then invest those funds by creating multiple units of housing from vacant homes and new constructions. Unfortunately, in D.C., the pushback against these types of measures has prevented them from ever materializing. Nearly a year ago, Mayor Bowser proposed closing the homeless shelter at D.C. General Hospital to deconcentrate the homeless, and provide shelters in all eight wards of the city. This would have allowed homeless individuals to maintain ties to their community, and allowed for a better utilization of resources.
However, like the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) movements from decades ago—where individuals in various communities across the country protested such projects when proposed close to their homes—outcries erupted in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in rapidly revitalizing and already affluent areas of the city. Residents suggested that the mayor had not consulted with them on where in their ward the shelters would be located and that the mayor would be wasting 40 million of taxpayer dollars to manage these eight smaller, geographically disaggregated facilities.
But now Bowser has introduced what amounts to an additional barrier to housing for the homeless. She is promoting a bill that would require individuals who do not have stable housing to provide two documents as proof of residency, where normally when, for others, one single document (such as a state-issued identification card) would be sufficient for homeless shelters. Citing funding concerns, the mayor tweeted that taxpayers should not be asked to provide services for individuals who have no legitimate residential claim in the city. To ask a person without a home to prove that they belong within the borders of a city is ludicrous, as well as being philosophically and morally at odds with the fact that D.C. has also been a sanctuary city for immigrants, regardless of legal status, since 2011. This kind of anti-homeless addendum does not directly protect D.C. borders; rather, it creates the legislative and administrative tools to further marginalize a group that is already being pushed to the fringes of our society.
A Policy for Homelessness
At its core, homelessness is really as straightforward as this: It simply means that one does not have a place to call home. Many of the additional issues that we conflate with homeless populations, such as mental illness, criminality, or addiction, should not be at the core of any policy geared toward this population, as they are not one and the same and may further stigmatize these groups.
In some ways, the D.C. plan to end homelessness by 2020 is spot-on: The idea of deconcentrating homelessness and making all wards accessible, accountable, and coordinated in their efforts to reduce it is admirable. However, in other ways, D.C.’s plan may be lacking in some key components: There is no attempt to ensure sustainable revenue sources to maintain these eight shelters, and there is no mention of coalition-building (which would include creating alliances between organizations, foundations, advocates, housing developers, academics, etc.) And, though, as mentioned, homeless populations are not unique in facing mental and physical challenges, there is still the need to offer supportive housing that includes services to address these challenges. In nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, local government has committed to providing a continuum of housing options for people with mental illness and addictive disorders, which includes skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, group homes, and residential crisis stabilization centers.
And, of course, perhaps the most important policy component for addressing homelessness involves preventing individuals from becoming homeless in the first place. During the worst of the 2008 housing crisis (to which D.C. was not completely immune), people across the country got a small glimpse at what it is like to suddenly lose shelter. Whether that glimpse came from their own loss, or from the troubles of friends or family, it became apparent to many that any shortfall in a very fragile safety net (such as missing a paycheck, running out of savings, or losing a job) puts homeowners and renters closer to homelessness than they ever imagined. Framing homelessness as a potential and proximate outcome for low-income and working-class families may make policymakers more receptive to changing their attitudes toward the homeless. Every day in D.C., new condos or high-rise buildings are being erected, further increasing rents and pushing people out of their homes. Assuring the security of low-income people who are one step away from this fate would be ideal in crafting a more effective policy to combat the dire—yet too often invisible—crisis we are facing in this city.