Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Homeless Singularity

I haven't posted for some time, but homelessness remains as the largest social issue to rent space in my brain, so I thought I would offload a few more things today.

In the last few years, we have seen an explosion of homelessness in every city in North America.  Many communities have declared states of emergency, and are doing big sweeps of homeless encampments. While this is partially an economic issue, as homelessness has been in the past, this new wave of people hitting our streets carries a new, and more sinister complexity.

Homelessness has always been complex.  I used to work in a shelter, and trying to balance between the needs of people who were struggling with mental health issues, and those trying to get out of the prison system was challenging.  People would get schizophrenic people into street drugs, and the more aggressive dealers would prey upon the most vulnerable, leaving shelter workers with few options to keep the peace and support people.  Often, my co-workers said we needed two shelters to deal with the issue propery. Yet things just kept getting more complex, as we tried to support First Nations people, LGBT folks, and those with developmental issues such as Autism.

In lock-step with the micro-complexities of shelter life, we seem to have a new complexity and conflict of needs in our wider economy.  Property values have increased to such a level in many places that people simply cant afford rent.  Furthermore, the increased property values lead to market speculation on houses that would have been rented at one time.  Landlords have become eager to sell, leading to many evictions, and more chaos.

Since rentals more scarce, landlords have become more selective about who they rent to, so we have increased credit checks, paperwork, and high-pressure vetting of tenants.

And to top it off, increased property value leads to gentrified areas, squeezing those in poverty into smaller geographic areas.  The problem with homelessness in a gentrified city is that it doesn't fit-- anywhere.  Every square inch of every sidewalk in large cities is spoken for, and is the livelihood of some business-owner or homeowner.  There is simply nowhere to go.

I call this the "Homeless Singularity," and it seems quite apparent that homelessness cant exist in the future-- we simply don't have the space for it.  Homelessness is so costly now, with estimates of $20,000 - $50,000 per homeless person per year in policing, clean up, court fees, shelter, healthcare, etc.  Supportive housing has become increasingly attractive, and new partnerships between unlikely allies, such as the business community, academia, government, and faith groups, are being formed to address the costs.

I think this singularity will end well, but only through a lot of flexible tap dancing.  Many cities have opened up their parks to deal with the transition, but I think in the far future, we will look back and see ourselves as barbarians for letting good people die on the sidewalk un-noticed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


I am one of the authors of this book, and we will be doing a tweet chat tomorrow at 1pm Eastern Time.  Join us on twitter #hhchat.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Affordable Housing will NOT Solve Homelessness

A lot of people are talking about affordable housing as a means to end homelessness, and while it will certainly improve the chances of people on the street, it will barely make a dent for many of the homeless-- here's why:

When I was a case planner and a housing advocate, I worked with hundreds of people to try and find housing.  Some were fortunate, and we managed to get them into supportive housing, or negotiate with landlords to allow a tenancy.

Most of the landlords who accepted my clients, however, were slumlords, and they had little respect for their tenants.  The slumlords wanted to keep their buildings full, so they allowed tenants to stay if I endorsed them, and if I promised to mitigate any conflicts.  Often, my client would have to be completely honest, revealing health issues, criminal records, or bad credit or renting history.  This personal information can all be obtained today anyway.  Take for example this site, which allows a search by a person's name, revealing how many times they have appeared in criminal court, and information about the charges being dealt with.  It's a horrific amount of information for a homeless person to reveal, but there are 6 landlords I can think of off the top of my head who will run your name through this site before they rent to you.

So my clients had to extend themselves beyond what a normal renter does, and be up front about any shady history they may have had.  This also impacted their tenancy, because if a person was accepted under these shaky terms, and if there was any "trouble", (bringing bottles and cans home from binning, lots of visitors, the smell of marijuana, etc) the landlord would call me and ask me to remove them. I usually tried to mitigate the trouble, but it was very difficult when the tenants were already viewed in such a bad light.

These are just some of the challenges faced by the homeless.  If there are 400 chronically homeless people, and you build 400 bachelor units that cost $500, you would simply make life easier for students and seniors, because they will look a lot better on the tenancy application.  Homeless people will stay homeless if they can't pass a tenancy check, which in my city, always includes the submission of your social insurance number for credit checks.  Oh, you are free to not give them your SIN number, but then they just say "we decided to go with another tenant."

So market housing is off the table for people with poor credit history, and not surprisingly, people who live in poverty often have a compromised credit history.  People in extreme poverty can also have addiction issues as they try to cope with their circumstances, and criminal records (because of course judges like to make "no drinking" orders as part of probation).

But, you might say, we can just build supportive housing, right?  This is the well-intentioned but false belief that supportive housing is somehow unconditionally approved.  It is not, at least not in my city.  We have a "Centralized Access to Supportive Housing"  portal (the "CASH" program, ironically) which governs ALL of the supportive housing in town, and they have very stringent criteria.  First, clients are expected to reveal all criminal histories, including charges, time served and upcoming court dates, past evictions, mental health issues (including treatment and prognosis), they need to have a secured, verified income, AND they need to have me (or another advocate) endorsing the application.  It is much, much harder to secure non-profit or supportive housing in my city than it is to find market housing.  Quite often, I would submit an application to CASH with my client for due diligence, but most got housed through wheeling and dealing with slumlords.  If my client was lucky enough to pass the CASH criteria, and secure supportive housing, the battle was still not over, because if there were any problems, they would be evicted for "the safety of the other tenants," and the next CASH application they submitted would have a clear mention of this eviction...

Welcome to reality, I'm glad you could join me.

What can I tell you at this point?  What do we need to do to save people who are in grave danger on the streets?  I'd like to remind you of how overwhelmingly successful the "Housing First" strategy is(click here if you don't know of it), the idea that you simply give keys to a person on the street, and then support them in their tenancy, rather than screening people. Why is this program so successful?  I will tell you why I think it is.  Housing First is successful because it is unconditional.  If you scrutinize people, some will not pass the screening, and those people will become chronically homeless.  No matter what criteria you use, you will have to exclude some people in a system of scrutiny.

So here is my solution:

Housing First
Education First
Employment First
Health Care First, etc etc

I hope this list makes sense in this context. I am not saying that any of these components should have priority-- though housing is perhaps the most important--  I am saying that we need to lower the barriers, screening, and scrutiny of people who have experienced homelessness.  I was one of the most successful housing advocates on the various teams I was employed on for one very large reason: I never said no. I accepted each and every client as a potentially fabulous tenant, no matter what state they were in, or what they had done.  I trusted them. The enemy is not the lack of affordable housing, it is the lack of trust between the "haves" and the "have nots."