Each night, Barbara and her four children cram together to sleep on the floor of her sister’s living room. Barbara is not sure how long this arrangement can last — her sister and husband have two kids of their own and are worried their landlord will hear about them packing nine people into their two-bedroom apartment. 

Kevin and Samantha and their infant daughter fitfully sleep in their compact car, with Kevin and Samantha taking turns watching the baby while the other one works a shift at a fast-food restaurant. They arrive early so they can spend time in the restaurant bathroom trying to bathe themselves.

After she was evicted, Melissa lived in a neighbor’s garden shed. The neighbor charged her rent to do so.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates at least a half-million people are homeless each night. That estimate likely misses as many homeless people as it counts.

For most of us, evidence of this crisis comes from seeing the in-the-street struggles of people who are chronically homeless. But in our law school eviction clinic, we see first-hand what the data have shown for years: most unhoused people, especially families and children, are living like Barbara, Kevin, Samantha and Melissa.

They, and most of our clients, endure homelessness for one simple reason: they cannot afford their rent.

They are not alone. A newly released comprehensive study of the homeless population of California by UC San Francisco researchers — the largest such sampling in the past 30 years — found that homeless persons’ median income the month before they became unhoused was only $960.

With income that low, it can quickly become impossible to afford market-rate rent. Research from the U.S. Government Accounting Office shows that for every $100 in average rent increases, there is a 9 percent spike in homelessness. Our clients and the millions of others lined up in eviction courts across the nation can attest to the truth of that.    

There is a response that is proven to work: Housing First.

Providing a safe, secure roof overhead immediately, then addressing other social service needs, is the most humane response to the needs of both our clients and the unhoused whose struggles play out in our cities’ streets. It is also the most effective response, as Housing First’s success in venues from Houston to Helsinki shows. Housing First sharply reduces the number of people who are unhoused and cuts the high cost of government interventions connected to homelessness.

Housing First also reflects the moral viewpoint that Americans have repeatedly expressed in surveys and is central to all religious and moral traditions: housing is a human right, and it is inhumane to place conditions on any person’s access to a safe, secure roof over their head.

As the name suggests, the Housing First approach focuses on getting both unhoused persons and people who are at risk of homelessness into a stable living space, in lieu of forcing the person to first get employed, sober or comply with other requirements. But Housing First is decidedly not “Housing Only”: it includes wrap-around services that can include mental health and substance abuse treatment when needed.

Decades of studies verifying Housing First’s effectiveness have earned it bipartisan support from policymakers. President George W. Bush’s homelessness czar was a fan. President Donald Trump’s HUD secretary gushed that, because of Housing First, “we can say without hesitation that we know how to end homelessness.” And Housing First is the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s approach to homelessness.

But today, Housing First faces two significant challenges.

First, it is being attacked by some right-wing politicians and commentators who label it as a failed liberal policy approach that makes cities more dangerous. Notable critics include activist Christopher Rufo, who also helped elevate critical race theory into a reliable political target, and Tucker Carlson. These attacks parrot the fallacy that homelessness is chiefly an addiction problem. Last month, the Pew Charitable Trusts became the latest in a long line of analysts to point out that research conclusively shows that homelessness is driven by housing costs, far more than any other factors such as mental health and substance use disorders.

The second challenge to Housing First comes from would-be supposed supporters within multiple levels of government. They undercut its effectiveness by watering down the program, reducing costs by not offering the wraparound services that have proven to be critical to many participants staying housed. Unfortunately, the Biden administration is among those who attempt to achieve Housing First success on the cheap, reducing federal spending on supportive services like drug treatment and health care. Half-baked Housing First efforts can produce underwhelming outcomes that both perpetuate cycles of homelessness and fuel the cynical criticism of the overall approach.

By comparison, perhaps the most compelling evidence of Housing First’s impact comes from its remarkable success reducing veteran’s homelessness by over half. It is an outcome made possible by the fact that the Veterans’ Administration does Housing First right, providing access to VA healthcare and other programs to buttress the housing provided.

We can learn from this model and expand on it. Representative Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who has herself experienced homelessness along with her children, has introduced “Housing Justice for All” legislation that would create a national-level Housing First program. Barbara, Kevin, Samantha, Melissa and millions of other “invisible” homeless people can tell you that a national expansion of Housing First would work — and is desperately needed.

Fran Quigley directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law.

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