Public Comment

Stone Soup Instead of Housing

By Sonja Fitz
Monday July 26, 2010 - 06:52:00 PM

The 2010 Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, “Opening Doors”, has a lot of data about the interwoven socio-economic causes of homelessness and affected subpopulations, and sets lofty goals — Ending chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years, and homelessness for families, youth, and children in ten. Spiced with calm analysis and peppered with carefully crafted ‘Logic’ introductions to each objective, somehow it still tastes suspiciously like stone soup…warmed over nuggets of existing wisdom from service providers around the country floating in a pale federal broth. 

Homelessness affects families, youth, veterans, and single adults? Yep. 

Solutions include better interagency coordination, more resources for prevention, improved economic stability, and more access to housing and health care? Uh huh. 


Pardon my skepticism (as I shove aside the stack of 5, 10, and 15 year plans I’ve encountered since entering this field in 1986), but your soup is a bit watery. Where’s the beef? Or since I’m a vegetarian I’ll take the liberty of inventing a different catch-phrase, where’s the hot sauce? And I mean that quasi-literally: where’s the heat that underscores the core emergency behind the neatly packaged bundle of factors that create and sustain homelessness: lack of housing? 

Oh yes, here it is on page 36, under the second goal, two lines in the second strategy, “…low cost capital for new construction” and “fund the National Housing Trust Fund”. And again on page 39, under the third strategy (after ‘improving targeting and prioritizing’ and ‘creating protocols and incentives’ for people to move out of supported housing and into independent housing when ready): “expand the supply of permanent affordable housing”. Thank you, Captain Obvious! Good objectives, but nothing new, and nothing concrete about how to make it happen. Do you think people just haven’t been trying hard enough to build new housing? 

Okay, exhale. I understand the desire to be clear and comprehensive. Yes, there are a lot of interconnected issues. But what is the first and most important factor in the life of a homeless person? They have no home. Any plan purporting to seriously address the crisis of Home-Less-Ness needs to address the availability of homes as its first and most urgent priority. In other words, how many housing units are needed to house the population, and how many exist? What is the gap nationally, state by state, and region by region? What is the action plan to fill that gap — money, policy, developers, siting/zoning issues, timeline? Not enough affordable housing is the center-stage emergency that needs to be dealt with. 

And even if there were physically enough affordable housing to meet demand (which there isn’t — affordable housing construction has steadily declined since the 1970s even as the number of households continues to rise), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that the 2010 Fair Market Rent has increased 40% since the 2000 census. I don’t know about you, but my income has certainly not kept up that pace. Further, what constitutes ‘affordable' housing is often laughably off the mark, targeting annual incomes of $30-40K rather than the $10-20K people on fixed incomes or minimum wage receive. 

By the government’s own precious new paradigm, Housing First or Rapid Housing, getting people into housing should be the first priority of homeless assistance, with services to help people improve their health and economic stability so they can stay housed provided to them once housed (a much ballyhooed approach that is nevertheless unproven — a recent report on Rapid Housing in NYC documented a 137% increase in recidivism, projected to reach 179% by the end of the year). Typical cart-before-the-horse politics — touting the Housing First model when the issue of ensuring an adequate supply of affordable housing doesn’t appear in the federal plan until page 36, and takes up the sum total of a paragraph of space with no concrete supply side goals? 

Listen, I am no Rush Limbagh. I do not wish failure on the President. I will be ecstatic if the plan achieves its goals and will be first in line to eat my own sorry, skeptical, nay-saying words wrapped up in a bow. But for now, you’ll pardon me if I pass on the soup — until you take the stones out of it and use them to build more housing. 

By Sonja Fitz, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), BOSS is a nonprofit organization in Alameda County, California that provides housing and services to help families and individuals overcome homelessness, while also fighting the root causes of poverty and homelessness.