Tomorrow is Super Tuesday - the Black Friday of politics which, with a little luck, will finally give us a decent idea of who will win the nominations for the major political parties. (More likely, it will be the groundhog day of politics, and Super Tuesday’s shadow will predict a minimum of 6 more weeks of nonsense.)
Whatever the outcome, what is clear is that whoever is elected come November will have to deal with some grim realities in terms of poverty, homelessness, and income inequality. Recent figures from TalkPoverty.org show the extent of the issue: as of 2014, some 46 million Americans are living beneath the poverty line. Of those, 15.5 million are children.
In terms of homelessness, on any given night some 578,424 Americans sleep on the streets. That’s essentially the population of the entire State of Wyoming.
Fortunately, there are a number of proven policies which have helped reduce the number of chronically homeless individuals in recent years. One of the best is called Housing First. The concept is as simple as the name - the idea is basically to get people housed before you do anything else, including solving addiction, unemployment, or mental issues.
Selling this idea hits an immediate wall with skeptics: why should they, with their tax dollars, support a drug addict, or someone who refuses to work, or someone suffering from severe mental issues? Or worse, someone who is all three?
The answer is: they already are.
In the State of Utah, for example, annual costs to the state for emergency care and and jail time for homeless individuals costs approximately $17,000 a year per person. Worse, these costs rarely, if ever, do anything to solve the underlying problem of homelessness. In the case of jail time, it often exacerbates the problem by creating or adding to the individual’s criminal record, making it difficult to obtain government services or even steady employment.
So not only are taxpayers already supporting these folks, they’re supporting them in a way that gets zero bang for their buck, and perhaps actively makes the lives of homeless individuals more difficult.
Housing First, on the other hand, immediately creates a safe place for homeless individuals to live, and integrates them into systems which allow them to get preventive care, counseling or other necessary services. The real kicker? It’s cheap. On average, Utah has spent $11,000 a year per individual using the Housing First method. More importantly, it’s changing people’s lives. Since the Housing First initiative began, Utah has cut chronic homelessness in the state by 91 percent.
I should note: chronic homelessness is just one part of a broad array of homeless issues in Utah and around the country as a whole. Utah still has a homeless population of 14,000 individuals on any given night. Housing First isn’t a silver bullet to defeat homelessness, but it is an incredibly creative and paradigm-shifting policy which has improved the lives of thousands of individuals. Solutions like this are what we need to defeat homelessness and poverty in the United States.
Note: to learn more about the difference between homelessness and chronic homelessness, read this NPR article: http://www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459100751/utah-reduced-chronic-homelessness-by-91-percent-heres-how
Photo: Blog photo from Cayce Clifford for NPR.
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