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The right policy approach to homelessness

June 8, 2024 | By Cathy Reisenwitz

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Many people believe individual risk factors for homelessness actually cause homelessness. But we know this isn’t true. A lack of affordable housing causes homelessness, just like a lack of affordable food causes hunger. 

So what’s the best policy solution to our affordability crisis? A new paper by analyst Mike Tanner looks at the empirical evidence for the most popular approaches on the left and right, and finds them both wanting. 

Last November Mike Tanner appeared on the Housing for Huntsvillians podcast and spoke at our happy hour to share some of what he learned in his research for Reimagining the Policy Approach to Homelessness.

The full paper is very much worth reading. 

But if you don’t have time, or want to know more before you dive in, allow me to summarize and editorialize.

The most popular policy approach to homelessness on the left is called “Housing First.” Here, as in many places, the left is halfway correct. You cannot solve homelessness without housing. The problem with most “Housing First” programs, however, is that they don’t involve actually building any more housing. So for every unhoused person who gets housing through the program, someone else has to lose theirs. 

The right, on the other hand, as in many places, is completely wrong in their main policy approach to homelessness. Criminalizing homelessness, sweeping tent encampments, and other carceral approaches to homelessness do nothing to reduce homelessness, and can actually increase homelessness in the cities that implement them. 

There’s only one policy approach to homelessness that is both humane and effective: Build more housing, especially housing that is affordable to low- and middle-income families (like ADUs!).