One reason why Congress has been willing to provide greater assistance is the increased visibility of homelessness during this same period. Encampments have spread to new places. Many downtown districts have less traffic and fewer workers, making people who are living out-of-doors more noticeable. A silver lining during these difficult two years is the fact that a higher awareness of homelessness has strengthened the public will to see the crisis dealt with and get people off the streets.
At the same time, this increased visibility has also brought a backlash of criminalization in many cities – a pattern we have seen before. The geography of homelessness, those places available to people who have nowhere else to go, shapes our public response in contradictory ways. As homelessness has risen, cities and localities have adopted a wide range of policies. Some of these laws work at cross-purposes, such as investing in outreach and trauma-informed care yet also scattering the intended recipients of this outreach through devastating enforcement sweeps. From Medford to Miami, Los Angeles to Austin, new “anti-camping” restrictions have been adopted during the past year to push people out of sight. Criminalization makes it difficult to compose a national strategy around homelessness.
When Local Responses Don’t Have National Support
Some of this geography has been created by the government’s attempt to avoid the issue. There is both a political inclination and basic human desire to make difficult problems disappear. When the era of mass homelessness began in the 1980s, Washington was eager to push responsibility to states and cities; many governors in turn felt that mayors were closer to the problem and better positioned to fight homelessness. City Hall policies have concentrated on keeping people out of sight or forcing them elsewhere. In major cities with homeless populations too large to hide, informal or even deliberate policies have pushed people into designated areas like LA’s Skid Row or San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Suburbs and smaller towns have similarly encouraged homeless residents to migrate to other places.
That’s not the full story, of course. The plight of homelessness has also generated a tremendous amount of compassion and assistance. Proximity to human suffering triggers an initial desire to help, much like we have seen with the national response to homelessness during the pandemic. In fact, it was the rapid spread of encampments across Los Angeles that spurred voters to support Prop HHH in 2016 and Measure H in 2017. These ballot measures raised billions in new investments for supportive housing and homeless services. Other West Coast cities also boosted their spending as homelessness became more visible, such as Prop C in San Francisco and Seattle’s corporate “head tax” for services and outreach.
Yet the West Coast example also shows how quickly the pendulum can swing back to criminalization when solutions don’t come soon enough. Neighborhoods that didn’t previously have encampments lost patience over time. None of the cities that funded new services with local revenue have made much progress on the scarcity of affordable housing at the root of homelessness, nor could they without greater assistance from Congress. In the absence of national housing policy, it’s difficult for any city to end homelessness on its own.
Progress Depends on More Housing
Congress has boosted homeless assistance during the COVID pandemic, but like some West Coast cities’ efforts, this new spending has focused on immediate aid rather than long-term housing. Over the past two years, we’ve seen an additional $4 billion for Emergency Solutions Grants in 2020 and $5 billion in HOME program funds for homeless assistance in 2021, as well as $5 billion for emergency rental assistance on top of regular annual appropriations.
The key to avoid losing ground on these new investments in Congress is to keep advocating for affordable housing as the long-term solution to homelessness. Only Washington has the hundreds of billions necessary to solve our nation’s affordable housing gap. That kind of money simply doesn’t exist in cities that have taken positive steps to address homelessness – without which, local efforts inevitably fall into frustration from lack of progress.
Criminalization of homelessness further hinders progress: local strategies that push homelessness out of sight are ineffective and callous to the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Similarly, national policies that only invest in emergency assistance cannot succeed unless Congress also confronts the lack of affordable housing. With rents rising and encampments multiplying, homelessness is more visible than ever. This moment calls for compassion, immediate action through emergency services and outreach, and more housing to address the root causes of homelessness in America.