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The Housing First Failure: If Boise Builds More Housing First, The Homeless Will Come (Part 1)



Mayor McLean’s plans for low barrier housing have been tried elsewhere, and they have failed.


National trends come to Idaho, but usually a bit later. This is one of the glories of our state. We have the chance to say “no” to policies that have failed elsewhere. Unfortunately, policy dreams around homelessness never seem to die. Boise under Mayor Lauren McLean is embracing Housing First policies, as we have shown in our five-part series on homelessness. Housing First will fail here in Idaho too.


Mayor McLean’s plans for low-barrier housing or Housing First are seen in the new Interfaith Sanctuary shelter on State Street. This shelter is funded by the national HUD using the “Housing First” funds. Mayor McLean is putting the livability of Boise at risk when she pursues such failed policies. And there is no excuse, because Housing First has failed wherever it has been tried.


What is Housing First?


In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) greatly expanded Housing First, a policy approach originally designed for a narrow segment of the homeless population. According to HUD, Housing First provides “permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or work requirements.” Housing First then became the nation’s predominant approach to homelessness.


Previously, many shelters offered food and a bed on the condition that the person be sober or stay off drugs or hear a biblical message or try to find a job. The goal was to address the spiritual condition that led to homelessness in the first place so people could get back on their feet. Under Housing First, shelters that accept federal money offer assistance without judgment and without condition. The goal is to give people shelter or a home so that they can live whatever life they want, drunk or sober, on drugs or not, as unemployed vagrants or as whatever. There are no barriers to housing--so Housing First is also called low barrier housing.


At the core of the Housing First theory is the idea that the homeless cannot be helped unless they first have their own home. The Housing First theory holds that once the homeless are comfortably housed, they will readily accept services such as substance abuse programs, mental health counseling, and employment training.


The Documented Failures of Housing First


Advocates of Housing First, of course, made utopian promises that their policies would end homelessness. The exact opposite has happened. Housing First policies have led to a great expansion of homelessness. More and more beds have been built and more and more homeless have flocked to occupy cities that support low-barrier shelters. According to HUD’s 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, there was a 42.7% increase in the number of permanent housing units dedicated to the homeless over the 2014–2019 period. The unsheltered homeless population still rose by 20.5%. When the country subsidizes a certain way of life, it is bound to get more of those that want access to shelters with no rules, where they can live lawlessly and continue their drug or alcohol abuse. Subsidize and enable homelessness and we get homeless.


This can be seen in our nationwide numbers, in Figure 1. As America has met the supposed housing needs of the homeless, the homeless numbers have started to climb. The country has almost 900,000 beds for the homeless—in shelters and in permanent housing. The homeless population grows to keep up with the supply.


Figure 1. U.S. Homelessness: Number of Beds and Unsheltered Before and After the 2013 One-Size-Fits-All Rollout of Housing First.



California is a special case. It is the only state to embed Housing First into state statute (SB 1380, 2016). California shows the failure of Housing First to end homelessness. In fact, California has the largest homeless population in the country. California increased the number of permanent housing units for the homeless by 33% since 2016 and California’s unsheltered homeless population rose by 47.1%.


Figure 2. Homelessness in California: Number of Beds and Unsheltered Before and After 2016 One-Size-Fits-All Rollout of Housing First



If housing alone were the key to solving homelessness, the unsheltered homeless population would have declined nationally and in California. Housing First was implemented in a period of decent economic growth and rapidly rising real wages.


No one should be surprised. If states or cities build more and more shelters, more and more homeless will come. When a state protects people from the pathologies of their own actions, people act more pathologically. Housing First means degeneracy and corruption.


Housing First advocates are at war with the realities of homelessness. HUD claims that most of the homeless are just struggling economically. HUD claims, for instance, that a mere 20% of the homeless struggle with severe mental illness and 16% with substance use disorder.


Are you gonna believe HUD or your own eyes? Studies confirm that HUD’s studies are just bunk. A 2019 study by the UCLA Policy Lab suggests that nearly 80% of unsheltered adults might struggle with mental illness and 75% with substance abuse disorders. These data align with the findings of the Los Angeles Times analysis of homelessness data, as well as with data from service providers across the country.


Housing First does not solve the problem of homelessness. It invites more homeless while never dealing with the spiritual rot at the bottom of the lives among the homeless. A more workable, human policy is needed. See our column tomorrow for details.


Figures: Data from 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2020 and author’s calculations.

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