People with firsthand experience of life on the streets are proposing policies — but they face grinding bureaucracy and strident NIMBYism.
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The lunch rush at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall is a snapshot of the changing character of American homelessness.
The first thing that strikes you is the sheer number of people the soup kitchen serves. The line outside starts forming two hours before the food is ready. Diners file in, eat quickly and get up as soon as they’re finished. They know someone is waiting outside for their seat.
Even more striking than the scale of need are the shifting demographics of who is eating here and why. The homeless population is getting younger, staffers say, and more likely to have children and full-time jobs. In one hour, over taco salad and Fanta, I meet fast-food employees, a former car salesman who lost his home in the financial crisis and a pregnant 31-year-old whose baby is due the same month her housing vouchers run out.
But the biggest surprise about St. Vincent’s may be the state in which it’s located. Just four years ago, Utah was the poster child for a new approach to homelessness, a solution so simple you could sum it up in five words: Just give homeless people homes.
In 2005, the state and its capital started providing no-strings-attached apartments to the “chronically” homeless — people who had lived on the streets for at least a year and suffered from mental illness, substance abuse or a physical disability. Over the next 10 years, Utah built hundreds of housing units, hired dozens of social workers ― and reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent.
The results were a sensation. In 2015, breathless media reports announced that a single state, and a single policy, had finally solved one of urban America’s most vexing problems. Reporters from around the country came to Utah to gather lessons for their own cities. In a widely shared “Daily Show” segment, Hasan Minhaj jogged the streets of Salt Lake City, asking locals if they knew where all the homeless people had gone.
But this simplistic celebration hid a far more complex truth. While Salt Lake City targeted a small subset of the homeless population, the overall problem got worse. Between 2005 and 2015, while the number of drug-addicted and mentally ill homeless people fell dramatically, the number of people sleeping in the city’s emergency shelter more than doubled. Since then, unsheltered homelessness has continued to rise. According to 2018 figures, the majority of unhoused families and single adults in Salt Lake City are experiencing homelessness for the first time.
“People thought that if we built a few hundred housing units we’d be out of the woods forever,” said Glenn Bailey, the executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, a Salt Lake City food bank. “But if you don’t change the reasons people become homeless in the first place, you’re just going to have more people on the streets.”
This is not just a Salt Lake City story. Across the country, in the midst of a deepening housing crisis and widening inequality, homelessness has concentrated in America’s most prosperous cities. So far, municipal leaders have responded with policies that solve a tiny portion of the problem and fail to account for all the ways their economies are pushing people onto the streets.
The reality is that no city has ever come close to solving homelessness. And over the last few years, it has become clear that they cannot afford to.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development proposal is focused on the Equal Access Rule, first published in 2012 to “ensure shelters and programs do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the National Center for Transgender Equality said Wednesday in a press release calling attention to the proposal.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson told House lawmakers this week HUD was “not currently anticipating changing the rule.”
“He lied,” the advocacy group said on Twitter.
HUD’s proposed change, published this spring, would allow shelter providers to consider “an individual’s sex for the purposes of determining accommodation within such shelters and for purposes of determining sex for admission to any facility.” Providers can consider “privacy, safety, practical concerns, religious beliefs” when making a determination about an individual’s sex, the proposed rule says.
According to HUD’s own analysis, the proposed rule would also separate those kids from their parents in the process
A new rule proposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would evict more than 55,000 children of immigrant parents from federally subsidized or public housing units, according to the department’s own analysis of the rule.
Without a clear plan for what would happen to the children after they’re evicted, it is likely they would be rendered homeless, in addition to being separated from their caretakers.
The proposed rule would change the public housing eligibility requirements of undocumented immigrants. Currently, an immigrant family can sign a lease on a public housing unit as long as one family member is in the United States legally, which for undocumented immigrants is usually the child. The proposed rule would require all family members to be in the U.S. legally.
The Washington Post was the first to publish HUD’s analysis of the rule and according to the paper the analysis says approximately 108,000 people living in subsidized housing have an ineligible member. Of those, 76,000 are legally eligible, and 55,000 are children. They are mostly in New York, California, and Texas, according to the Post.
“The cruelty of [HUD] Secretary [Ben] Carson’s proposal is breathtaking, and the harm it would inflict on children, families, and communities is severe,” Diane Yentel, National Low Income Housing Coalition president and CEO, said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of deeply poor kids, mostly U.S. citizens, could be evicted and made homeless by this proposal, and—by HUD’s own admission—there would be zero benefit to families on waiting lists.”
The rule, which was originally announced in April, is part of a broader crackdown on immigration by President Donald Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller. Such moves have drawn headlines as immigration officials working on the southern U.S. border have deported asylum-seekers from Latin America, separating children from their parents in the process.
Carson and the White House have argued that the HUD rule would free up resources for legally eligible recipients and shorten waitlists for both public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers, which provide rental assistance.
“Thanks to [Trump’s] leadership, we are putting America’s most vulnerable first,” Carson tweeted in April when the administration announced the rule. “Our nation faces affordable housing challenges and hundreds of thousands of citizens are waiting for many years on waitlists to get housing assistance.”
The rule comes on the heels of numerous Trump administration attempts to cut funding to public housing and rental assistance programs. Each of the administration’s four budget proposals cut entirely the public housing capital fund, which is used to make improvements to public housing units. It’s also tried to cut the public housing operating fund, which is used to field maintenance and day-to-day operations of public housing, by almost 50 percent.
While Congress has yet to pass a 2020 budget, it did not pass any of these cuts in the first three budgets of Trump’s term as president.
“These proposed changes would appear to carry out part of the Trump administration’s agenda of sharply altering our nation’s immigration policies and making life more difficult for immigrants,” Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a statement. “The barrage of policies the administration has put forward in this area run counter to our nation’s centuries-long experience—still true today—of immigrants coming to the United States and building a better life for themselves and for future generations while contributing to their communities and the broader society.”
The number of people living in homelessness in Los Angeles increased significantly last year ― echoing a broader rise in people living unhoused across the state in recent years.
The vast majority of those who are homeless ― about two-thirds ― are in the city of Los Angeles, which counted over 36,000 homeless people this year, a 16% increase from last year.
Overall the figures show a dramatic 36% increase in homelessness since 2010 in the county.
“Shame on you!” yelled one audience member at the county board of supervisors meeting when the figures were announced.
Los Angeles’ figures follow even more disappointing ones from areas further north released last month: Homelessness spiked in the San Francisco Bay Area ― with the number of homeless people in San Francisco going up 17% and in Alameda County (which includes Oakland) up 43% since 2017.
“Any increase in homelessness is heartbreaking, and we can see with our own eyes ― on the streets of LA and cities across California ― that the crisis has tightened its grip around the lives of too many of our neighbors,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said in a statement to HuffPost. “These results remind us of a difficult truth: skyrocketing rents statewide and federal disinvestment in affordable housing, combined with an epidemic of untreated trauma and mental illness, is pushing people into homelessness faster than they can be lifted out.”