We have long moved past the ideology of homelessness as a choice, and the Reagan Administration’s declaration that “no one is living on the streets.” In fact, the United States in recent years has even gone beyond simply sheltering the homeless population. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has made the Supportive Housing Program its focus on addressing the homelessness problem. The Supportive Housing Program has been designed to “develop supportive housing and services that will allow homeless persons to live as independently as possible.” And to a large extent, this program has been very successful coupled with state and local governments, housing authorities, and nonprofits. The successes of this program shows that we are ready to take the next step in aiding the homeless population, and to me, this means preparing them for homeownership.
A study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2008 presented the average length of time spent by homeless persons in various types of housing across 26 cities. The results showed that the average stay for single men in permanent supportive housing was 556 days, and 571 days for single women. That creates an average time of about a year and a half that a homeless individual stays in this housing. This compares to some recent data from Virginia Supportive Housing, a permanent supportive housing nonprofit based out of Richmond, Virginia. VSH’s data shows that emergency room visits dropped from 200 prior to program entry, to less than 30 after 10-20 months after entry. Similarly, arrests went from more than 40 prior to entry, to less than 5 after entry. Furthermore, individuals who partake in VSH’s program saw an average income increase by 33%.
It is clear, then, that the permanent supportive housing approach has worked very well. Homeless individuals who participate in the programs no longer spend large quantities of their time in jail or the hospital, and see a significant increase in their incomes. The program also couples their permanent housing solution with skills improvements such as in math, reading and writing, and cooking. Meanwhile, success rates have been high. The Crossroads in Atlanta boasts of a 90% success rate of individuals who do not return to homelessness, and most supportive housing organizations show similar figures.
The next question we must ask is “what’s next?” Although the average stay in supportive housing is only a year and a half, most organizations do not have term limits. Therefore, by allowing individuals to stay permanently, it becomes difficult for permanent supportive housing to address all of the needs of every homeless person in a given city. Continually, those who do choose to move out, obviously move on to another form of housing. If this is the case, why shouldn’t the next logical step to supporting the homeless population be to prepare them for homeownership? There have been a number of successful programs to help low-income groups purchase a home that could easily be modified to address the homeless population.
Homeownership training programs have shown to be an effective way of preparing low-income and minority populations for homeownership, while increasing their access to better neighborhoods. Though these programs have neglected to fully prepare low-income groups for the costs of repairs and general upkeep of owning a home, the fact is that more low-income people are able to become homeowners as a result of these programs. The programs, then, could easily accommodate previously homeless individuals looking to move beyond rental housing. Despite being a very low-income group, even after significant increases in their income after moving into permanent supportive housing, homeownership training programs could start the process for homeless individuals to prepare themselves for homeownership. To begin this process, these programs should be incorporated into all permanent supportive housing programs, and be made accessible to any homeless individual who dreams of owning a home for the first time, or becoming a homeowner again.
Another option is adjusting the idea of social ownership to incorporate the homeless. Michael Stone defines social ownership as: “it is not owned and operated for profit, it cannot be sold for speculative gain; and it provides security of tenure for residents.” Social ownership therefore removes the asset accumulation side of homeownership, and focuses on security of tenure. Realistically, the goal for transitioning form homeless to homeowner is security of tenure. This is provided by permanent supportive housing, but is only available to a limited number of individuals. If the new goal is to then move homeless individuals into a social ownership situation, where they have the social benefits of homeownership, but not the financial aspects, that goal will have been achieved. Regardless of whether this social ownership comes in the form of ownership by a public agency, ownership by a nonprofit, or some sort of mutual housing association, it will provide us with this next step.
Finally, our mentality towards homelessness has to change. We may no longer see homelessness as nonexistent, or as a group of individuals who choose to live their life that way, but few Americans are able to see a path from homeless to homeownership. We must recognize that homelessness is a serious issue in this country, and it is not going away until we devote equally serious financial and social support to the problem. If for no other reason, we should be motivated to not pour taxpayer dollars into hospital trips and jail cell stays, but the moral obligation must be realized as well. These are our fellow humans and fellow citizens who need and want a change, and we have the resources to provide it.
Guest Contributor: Matt Morgan