Homelessness has two kinds of causes–regional and individual.
At the regional level, homelessness is a housing problem. UW researchers have proven it. Seattle is one of the most scientifically literate cities in the country, but we’ve let special interests hijack our housing policy and keep us from addressing the root cause of the problem. Even cities with much higher rates of addiction and poverty, or with more comfortable climates and similarly “soft” enforcement policies, have much less homelessness than Seattle when they build enough housing.
But it is also true that in the context of a housing-scarce and expensive city like Seattle–we have a pretty good sense of who will lose a home. A breakup, a new baby for a young, poor mother, domestic violence, job loss, addiction problems, and behavioral health issues can be the last straw that sends someone onto the street. So we need to address those as well–and we can get the most return for our investment through poverty reduction and providing the treatment capacity we need for drug addiction and behavioral health problems.
But if we want the overall rate of homelessness to go down, we have to make sure there is enough housing and enough affordable housing, or we will continue to play a sordid game of musical chairs. In cities with abundant housing, these life challenges much more rarely result in homelessness. Those cities’ policies keep prices and vacancy rates more reasonable. Sure, the new housing they build itself isn’t affordable, but the overall amount of housing is enough to accommodate more of the population, even most of those who are struggling.
So, the most important thing we can do is address the housing and affordability crisis overall. I’ve identified the ways we need to aggressively invest in scientifically supported policies to increase supply, stabilize costs, and subsidize those the market doesn’t serve well. In addition, here are more things we need to do to help house our unsheltered neighbors:
- Treat homelessness as a real emergency by expanding next-best alternatives like at least 2,000 more tiny homes and expanded hotel shelters as a stopgap while we build more housing.
- Build at least 3,500 permanent supportive housing units with intensive on-site psychiatric support so that people with chronic behavioral issues stay housed safely and off the street. This is a years-long project, but we are moving too slowly.
- Aggressively invest in affordable and social housing and reduce the barriers to building them that make doing so extra expensive.
- Create new revenue streams to fund affordable and social housing that doesn’t rely on property taxes–but instead rely on taxing the biggest corporations and the very richest, who are undertaxed compared to the rest of the population.
- Address mental health needs and addiction with evidence-based programming like LEAD.
- Stop homelessness before it starts with direct assistance for those at the highest risk.