To reduce homelessness, New York should focus not on increasing beds but on support for mental health and overcoming addiction.
In his state of the state address, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a $20 billion plan that will help house the state’s homeless population. He joins New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was first to the punch with a plan to invest $2.6 billion for an unprecedented 15,000 new units of supportive housing over the next 15 years.
These plans have come in response to a growing homelessness problem in New York City. Not only are more people seen sleeping on the street, but the number of people in homeless shelters continues to hover around record highs. Until now, Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, had been among the mayor’s fiercest critics. While the feud initially stalled action, it is now having the opposite effect as the two leaders race to outdo one another in confronting homelessness.
Altogether, the plans call for a combined 35,000 new units of supportive housing. With this massive investment, will homelessness finally be eradicated in New York?
Advocates believe that supportive housing is the only way to truly reduce street homelessness. The program is geared toward homeless individuals with mental illness or substance abuse problems; it offers permanent housing coupled with supportive services, contracted out to nonprofit organizations.
In a research paper, I tested whether cities that expand supportive housing see reduced homeless populations. I found that while more housing slightly reduced homelessness in the short run, the numbers went right back up one year later. The fact is that most people who are homeless today won’t be homeless next year. If you permanently house someone who was temporarily homeless, the numbers don’t change in the long run. The upshot is that we should be skeptical about claims that the massive investment in supportive housing will have a large, sustained effect on New York’s homeless population.
Of course, reducing homelessness isn’t the only reason to invest in supportive housing. If it transforms people’s lives, the money will be well spent. Unfortunately, research has not demonstrated success on major outcomes. Canada recently completed the largest randomized study ever testing whether supportive housing reduced addiction and mental health problems. It didn’t. Previous studies in the United States have found the same result. For New York, simply investing in more supportive housing isn’t the answer.
Effective solutions for the homeless require a new mindset. It’s easy to view the homeless simply as a problem to get rid of. And promising billions of dollars in an attempt to reduce homelessness allows the mayor and governor to say that they “did something.” But what’s really needed is a focus on helping people overcome the problems that made them homeless so that they can move on with their lives.
That means more investment in the quality of supportive housing. If supportive housing programs do a better job of helping people overcome addiction and mental health problems, beds can more quickly be turned over to help needy people in the future. Currently, only 10 percent of supportive-housing beds turn over each year. Service providers should be rewarded for helping people move in with family or into housing of their own. They should also be held more accountable for helping people overcome addiction and mental health problems. More money may be required to get the highest quality providers to provide truly transformative services. But higher quality is a better investment than higher quantity.
At the same time, permanent supportive housing should be reserved for people who need the most support. For those with less severe issues, shorter-term transitional programs can provide the intensive, time-limited support needed to help people become self-sufficient. For others, short-term rental subsidies or mainstream services will be enough.
Yet rather than focusing on higher quality services for people most in need, the mayor’s plan calls for expansion of supportive housing for a widening group of people – including some who are not actually homeless and others who may not need long-term support to stay housed. Mayor de Blasio needs to realize that paying service providers more money for people who don’t need their services means less quality care for those who need it most.
De Blasio and Cuomo should be commended for finally taking action to confront homelessness in New York. But simply spending more money to get people off the street is not enough. A greater focus on quality and targeting assistance to those who most need it is necessary. Rather than lose a fight against homelessness, the mayor and governor should work together to win a fight for the homeless people who need the most help.