Is Homelessness the Biggest Issue Facing American Cities?
Author and Public Policy Expert Michele Steeb Weighs In
Throughout her life, Michele Steeb has been a spirited champion for the public good. She’s managed and led fundraising for political campaigns launched two technology companies and had a successful stint as Vice President of Political Affairs for the California Chamber of Commerce.
In 2006, she joined the board of a struggling emergency homeless shelter in Sacramento, California. Michele later became the Chief Executive Officer transforming it into a comprehensive program serving 270 homeless women and children. She also served on the Policy Board to End Homelessness and on the steering committee that helped launch Sacramento Steps Forward.
Her biggest milestone? — Securing $4 million in public and private capital funding for the shelter allowing it to grow to over 50,000 square feet of expanded operating capacity.
Michele says that thirteen years in the trenches serving the homeless reinforced a grand life lesson for her:
“Treat a person as he or she is and watch them remain so. Treat a person as he or she can be and watch them become so.”
In 2019, Michele stepped down as CEO of the homeless shelter and relocated with her family to Lucas, Texas. Today, she is a Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Filled with perspectives and experiences from her advocacy work, in 2020 she authored the book, "Answers Behind the RED DOOR: Battling the Homeless Epidemic."
Released during the rise of the pandemic, the book offers a sobering look at our nation’s growing homeless epidemic and its impact on our cities, communities, and future generations.
When asked what led her to write “Answers behind The Red Door,” she remarked:
“Once I made the decision to leave Sacramento which meant leaving the shelter I led, I felt compelled to write this book to share what I learned in my 13 years on the ground, including the ineffectiveness of government policy in terms of helping the homeless. At the same time, I wanted to offer some hope by highlighting 11 success stories of people who have risen from the depths of despair to live their full potential.”
She says that David Flanagan, her co-author who served on the board of the shelter and who has authored several other books, encouraged her to take this step while agreeing to co-author the book.
“Our audience includes policymakers and everyday citizens who are looking around saying, "What in the world happened? Why has homelessness become so prevalent and what can I do about it?"
Throughout the pages, she poses many questions:
“In arguably one of the richest countries in the world, why is homelessness happening? Why? And perhaps more significantly, what can be done to turn it around? The ANSWERS are never easy, but they do exist...once we begin to ask the right QUESTIONS.”
Michele says that the pandemic led to a noticeable surge in homelessness in major cities around the nation. She largely attributes this to ineffective government policy
She says that for many years women and children have become what she calls the invisible homeless….
“their numbers have been increasing dramatically, though, for many years, HUD has falsely claimed family homelessness has been decreasing.”
In terms of solutions, she believes that a more regional approach where counties NOT cities are taking the lead on homelessness is the key.
“My #1 aim in writing the book was to share my learnings as well as share the hope that with thoughtful policy changes, the crisis can be turned around.”
On a recent trip to Dallas, I had the opportunity to sit down and interview Michele about the continued impact homelessness is having on American cities as well as potential solutions for addressing it.
Many major cities across the U.S. are seeing a major uptick in their levels of homelessness. Was there a major factor that sparked this?
Back in 2013 the federal government, which is the largest national funder of homelessness, made a very seismic policy shift. In the old way of doing things, different forms of housing existed — like shelters, transitional housing, and permanent housing, mostly communal housing. There were also an array of services those impacted by homelessness could take advantage of. But HUD, which is the largest federal government agency addressing homelessness made the decision that they were only going to fund permanent, supportive housing.
What occurred next?
So, over a decade, they began taking away all of the service funding tied to mental health drug and alcohol counseling, and employment training, electing to move all of that money into housing subsidies. At the same time, they also took away emergency shelter funding and transitional housing funding, while funneling it toward permanent housing subsidies. This coupling of all of these services to just subsidies represented a very big shift, the impact of which continues to grow.
Why do you believe the decision was made to move in this direction?
This decision was largely informed by a program started in the ’90s called Housing First. It was designed to get the very chronically addicted and severely mentally ill populations off the streets and into housing as soon as possible. The feeling has been that they’re hurting themselves and costing the system a lot of money being on the streets. So without any requirement around them to engage in services, they had a low level of barrier to accepting this housing.
What has been the impact of Housing First in attempting to address these issues?
Under Housing First, the nation’s unsheltered homeless population—largely those living on the streets—rose by 20.5 percent, despite a 200 percent increase in federal homelessness assistance spending from 2009 to 2019, and a 42.7 percent increase in the number of permanent housing units dedicated to the homeless from 2014 to 2019.
That’s significant! What else don’t we know here?
It’s important to note that the chronically ill street population back then and still today (but the definition has changed a little bit) is only 10-20% of the entire homeless population when you look at it on the national level. So this housing first policy was developed for a very small, specific segment of the homeless population. Moreover, government leaders rolled it out without any evidence it would work as a one size fits all solution. In other words, all of the vitally important services and resources, including that for emergency shelters and transitional housing, were all redirected to permanent housing subsidies.
How exactly did the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbate the issue?
So with the policy shift to permanent housing subsidies, the promise was that it would end homelessness in a decade. We just hit that anniversary in January and homelessness has gone up everywhere. Pre-COVID, pre-2020 data shows it went up on a national level by 15.6%. And it’s more like 20.5% when it comes to the unsheltered, street homeless.
There has been so much media attention on the dire situation involving homelessness in California. Can you talk a little about this?
California was the only state that said that “they were all in” with respect to making this housing-first approach state policy. That was in 2016. Today, the Pre-COVID data shows a 33.1% increase in the overall homeless population and a 47.1% increase in the unsheltered population. The post-COVID data is still coming out but just in the capital city of Sacramento, there has been a 67% increase post-COVID, 2022 over 2020. And Sacramento went all in on housing. It’s been an interesting experiment because, at the county level, they went all in on housing first. But then you have the state overlaying that and then the Feds.
Can you break this down a bit more in terms of your assessment of what’s really happening here?
There are many factors. Some say it’s an affordable housing issue pure and simple, and the data shows that it’s not. There are a lot of other factors. But in my opinion, this is primarily a health and human services crisis.
So where does the accountability lie in terms of addressing this growing issue not only in California but nationwide?
Again, with the exception of the joint city/counties, there’s only a handful out there, counties are typically responsible for the delivery of health and human services. Most local citizens are unaware of this and thus never think to approach their county supervisor. They instead believe that their city council is responsible. But as these problems have gotten greater, the cities have stepped in because the citizens are saying, “help us this is getting really bad.” As the cities have stepped in, the counties have retreated back and left it to the cities. They don’t want to deal with this problem because it’s such a difficult problem. So you have that dynamic.
Are you saying that the counties are shirking their responsibility?
Yes, in a sense. Cities are now all in while the counties are not stepping up and doing their job in most places. You see this happening in Los Angeles, in Austin, in Sacramento. The cities now have all the money yet they don’t have a health and human services structure to deliver the services. So they’re in a mad rush to hire all of these employees which is going to take up a lot of this money.
So how do you believe all of this is going to shake out?
The bottom line is this, despite all attempts on the part of federal, state, local, and county governments to help the homeless, we have prevented many who are a part of this population from achieving their potential. In other words, because of our lack of progress in helping the homeless get better, we have essentially condemned them to an existence that holds little or no hope.
To what extent do mental health issues and substance abuse addiction factor into all of this?
So just imagine suffering from mental illness and addiction as 78 percent of the homeless do, according to the UCLA Policy Lab.
Imagine sharing your challenges with a doctor whose only response is, “I am writing you a life-long prescription for subsidized housing. You can continue to use all the drugs you’d like in this housing, and you can choose whether you’d like therapy to address your mental health issues. Oh, and you need not work to fund your rent, ever. This should fix you right up.” This sums up the government’s response to homelessness: a counterintuitive, low-barrier, low-expectation, high-cost homeless policy called Housing First.
Bottom line, the real issue here is….
Absolving the homeless from societal requirements—allowing them to behave without the rules to which we all must adhere to thrive—prevents the government from effectively addressing the nation’s homelessness crisis, and from helping the homeless achieve their innate potential. Instead what’s left is a system devoid of choice, innovation, and accountability (or individual participation). Its failure to truly address the issue is hardly surprising.
As we rapidly approach 2023, what’s your sense in terms of where all of this is headed?
So we’re going to have a really big problem in a couple of years because money is running out. The Cares Act, rescue plan, etc — that’s all one-time money. The cities don’t have ongoing funding sources to keep that infrastructure going. Counties get that money. They get money from the state department of health or the federal Department of Health and Human Services. There are lots of different pots of funding arriving in the counties but little or non for the cities.
So two years from now what’s the worst-case scenario? What do you think that will look like if this isn’t addressed?
It’s not going to be addressed in two years. We’re going to have a very big crisis at the city level because cities are going to have to start to choose between vital services that they are providing their residents and keeping this going. And the bigger crisis is that money that came through the Cares Act, all tied to this same policy called The American Rescue Plan is not working. It hasn’t been working and it’s certainly not going to work as a one size fits all approach.
In conclusion, what steps need to be taken to begin to address this issue?
To address the nation’s homeless crisis, we must support the homeless in healing from their illnesses, including by requiring that they participate in this healing. We must reconfigure the system to fund their growth and productivity to propel them to achieve their full potential.
We need to raise expectations and set the bar accordingly, not just for the homeless but for the nonprofits supporting them and for the policymakers who must ensure that policy uplifts, not condemn, the homeless.
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