The Los Angeles Times recently reported that over 75 percent of those living on the streets in California’s largest city are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, or a physical disability.

Most of us would not call this “newsworthy.” As we walk the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento, it’s just plain obvious.  

The Times’s analysis aligns with a new national study released by the California Policy Lab at UCLA reporting that 78 percent of the nation’s homeless struggle with mental illness and 75 percent with a substance abuse disorder.

The significance of this report: officials from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority earlier reported that only 29 percent of LA’s homeless were afflicted by either mental illness or a substance use disorder.  

News organizations throughout the country should follow the Times’s lead and do a deeper dive into what their homeless services agencies are reporting. Why? Because it makes no sense to continue to prescribe solutions to the problem of homelessness without understanding what led folks into it.

“Health, behavioral health and trauma are significant contributing factors to loss of housing, particularly for unsheltered women,” stated an October 2019 report by the California Policy Lab. This view is underscored by recent research by the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, which found that homeless adults in California’s Santa Clara County—home to fabled Silicon Valley—reported severely traumatic childhoods:

  • 78 percent grew up in a household with a person experiencing drug or alcohol dependence; 
  • 64.6 percent endured psychological abuse as a child; and
  • 37.5 percent experienced homelessness as children.

Over the past five years, at both the national level and in California, our public-policy answer to this escalating crisis has been a one-size-fits-all approach called Housing First

Housing First was initially rolled out in 2009 through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), targeting a small and distinct segment of the homeless population—the severely addicted and mentally ill chronic homeless.

By 2013, HUD bureaucrats had introduced it to all segments of the homeless population and creatively manipulated research to call it evidence based. Then, they encouraged states and counties across the country to follow suit. Three years ago, California adopted Housing First as its one-size-fits-all approach—requiring that all departments administering state programs targeted to ending homelessness incorporate the core components of Housing First into their programs by July 2019.

Under Housing First, all agencies that receive HUD funding are mandated to provide lifelong, permanent housing for all who enter homelessness while strictly prohibiting sobriety requirements or accountability requirements for the individuals it seeks to help. In other words, our public-policy response to this crisis emphatically ignores the underlying reasons the majority of people enter into homelessness.

What’s more, HUD-funded and state-funded programs for homeless families are forced to accept anyone into their program, even those with untreated mental illness or addiction, putting children and their mothers at great risk of retraumatization by placing them in dangerous environments—environments that will likely lead to destructive, generational behavior patterns as well.

Furthermore, Housing First policy diametrically not only conflicts with best practices in substance-use disorder treatment, as well as the core principles of trauma-informed care, it also defies common sense.

Helping people out of homelessness requires an individualized approach that helps them address the reasons they became homeless so they can permanently escape the vicious cycle that entraps most who enter.

Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a Sacramento-based program designed to support single-mother-led families struggling with addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, or trauma, is an example of how effective an individualized approach can be.

Mothers graduate from the 18-month residential program at Saint John’s with a job, with a savings account, and having received the counseling and other services needed to work through the trauma and addiction that led to their homelessness. In addition, their children have a role model to whom they can look to guide their path forward rather than repeat the cycle.

Not only is a one-size-fits-all public policy response ineffective for the majority of people struggling with homelessness, here is how it’s fueling a homelessness tsunami in our future.

Federal Department of Education statistics show that nearly 1.4 million students attending public school experienced homelessness in the 2016–17 school year—that’s 27 percent more children than in 2010–11.

Meanwhile, nearly 43,000 California children are currently experiencing homelessness, an increase of 19.1 percent, comparing the 2016–17 school year to that of 2010–11.

Data for 2017–18 is not yet publicly available, but the preliminary information suggests the numbers of homeless children in California continues to increase.

Bear in mind these statistics:

  1. One in three homeless children has a major mental disorder by the time he or she is eight years old.
  2. Homeless children have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems, all of which make homeless students twice as likely to repeat a grade compared to non-homeless children.
  3. Homeless children perform worse academically than children categorized as low-income.  A study of students in Washington State found that homeless children scored 10 percentage points lower on the state math and English tests than low-income students who were not homeless.
  4. Homeless children are sick at twice the rate of other children and have five times the rate of diarrhea and stomach problems, which is not surprising given that homeless children are twice as likely to go hungry and half of them experience anxiety, depression, or withdrawal. As a consequence, it is not surprising that homeless children have great difficulty learning in school.

Without appropriate and individualized interventions, it’s obvious how a homeless child beset with a wide array of overwhelming life challenges becomes an addicted, mentally ill, and seemingly unemployable homeless adult living on the streets. 

Instead, our one-size-fits all public-policy response disregards the root causes of a person’s homelessness. Thus, the tidal wave of people facing homelessness today is nothing compared to the tsunami that may face us tomorrow.

Here’s what President Trump and his administration can do to reverse this terrifying trend:

  1. Request that the Council of Economic Advisers at the White House evaluate the research that HUD uses to claim Housing First as evidence based for all populations struggling with homelessness, both in the near and long term.
  2. Return to the original intent of Housing First—a solution originally developed for the severely addicted and mentally ill street homeless versus a one-size-fits-all answer for all who struggle with homelessness.
  3. Force HUD to adopt the federal Department of Education’s definition of homelessness so they can no longer hide the growing number of homeless women and children in America. HUD’s narrow and unrealistic definition of a homeless family has led to its declaration that family homelessness is decreasing and prevents some of the most vulnerable children and families from accessing help.
  4. Designate the federal Administration for Children and Families, within the US Department of Health and Human Services, as the agency responsible for homeless families, as they are in tune with the needs of homeless families and children in particular.
  5. Create partnerships with churches, the private sector, and philanthropic organizations to support programs that have demonstrated results in creating self-sufficient individuals and families. 

HUD is now spending $4.5 billion annually on Housing First, the bulk of that distributed through counties and states. When HUD policy changes, most counties and states will follow suit in order to maintain the HUD funding upon which they are largely reliant. 

President Trump was elected on the promise to upend the bureaucratic conventional wisdom of the Washington “swamp.” He has the opportunity to start a common-sense revolution to address America’s homelessness epidemic.

If the president chooses to take these actions, it will change America’s landscape and improve the lives of millions, including the most vulnerable—the children.

Lance Izumi is Senior Director of the Center for Education at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute and the author of the 2019 book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.

Michele Steeb is the former CEO of Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a Sacramento-based residential program that supports women and children struggling with addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, and homelessness.

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