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A Home for Everyone: The Unfulfilled Promise of Thanksgiving

November 2015

 

On Thursday morning, when I fly from Los Angeles to Utah for Thanksgiving with my family, there will come a moment when I’m reminded just how fortunate I am that I have a home to go to. So, I’m guessing, do you. Thanksgiving is practically synonymous with home. It’s part of what makes this holiday so meaningful. It’s what we picture when we think of the day, everyone seated around a table, at home.

But on the road to the airport that morning, I will see something that is all too common in this country: people who don’t have a home to go to. And as I go to celebrate the holiday with my family, a sad reality will set in: they likely don’t have anyone to celebrate with. They’re homeless, and they’re more numerous here in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country other than New York City.

But then as the plane lands, something strange will happen. Homelessness, which had been so ubiquitous on the streets of my hometown, will practically disappear from sight. Utah, you see, has almost eliminated chronic homelessness.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of differences between Utah and Southern California. The price of housing, to name the most obvious, is a lot lower in Utah. But every state has thousands of homeless residents, and Utah was no exception until recently.

What changed in Utah was a program called Housing First. Starting in 2005, the state went to the chronically homeless and offered them a deal: For $50 a month or 30 percent of their income, whichever was more, the state would give them an apartment to live in.

Ninety percent took them up on it.

Utah doesn’t count chronically homeless residents in the thousands anymore. There are so few left that the statewide director of the program says he knows them by name. And because it costs more for the police and hospitals to deal with them on the street, giving them apartments has actually saved the state money.

It’s tempting to conclude from this story that the problem is easy to solve. It isn’t.

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Despite its success in reducing chronic homelessness, Housing First has barely made a dent in the rest of the homeless population; the “other” homeless group that often drifts between temporary homes and outnumbers the chronically homeless by more than ten-to-one. A key problem is money. Even though it saves money in the long run, reducing homelessness requires more money upfront, and the National Housing Trust Fund that President George W. Bush established to address the problem has been raided by Congress to pay for other programs. Further, unless it comes with “wraparound” services like substance-abuse treatment and job training and placement, providing housing is unlikely to generate the self-sufficiency needed for formerly homeless people to stay in their new homes. And of course it does nothing to prevent Americans from becoming homeless in the first place.

The sad reality is that the pathways to homelessness are many and complex, ranging from substance abuse to domestic violence to mental illness. Children are particularly vulnerable. If they don’t have a support system at home, they may look for it in “street families” and gangs. Robin Petering, a PhD candidate at the USC School of Social Work, has interviewed the homeless youth of Los Angeles and found that over half of them have been closely affiliated with gangs. Most of them are no longer gang members, yet they’re treated as criminals, unable to transition into productive society.

Clearly, housing cannot solve these problems alone, and that is because home is more than housing. Home is safety. Home is health. Home is self-sufficiency.

Perhaps most evident on Thanksgiving, home is family.

And that is why it was so moving to see HUD Secretary Julián Castro post the following to Twitter earlier this week: “Up to 40 % of homeless youth are LBGT. LGBT persons are often rejected from their homes because of who they are.”

Rejected from their homes. Of all the tragedies in the human experience, can any be more antithetical to what we celebrate on Thanksgiving, this anniversary of many of our ancestors finding a home in a new land? They too were rejected, and the native peoples of this great continent stood ready to welcome them.

Cherish the home you find yourself in this Thanksgiving. I will cherish mine. Then, when the celebration is over, I will fly back to Los Angeles, and I will get back to working with you to fulfill the promise this nation once represented to a brave band of homeless pioneers who came to these shores in search of a home for all who would one day call themselves Americans.

This article is written by Dr. Raphael Bostic. He is the Judith and John Bedrosian Chair in Governance and the Public Enterprise at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Photo Credits:

Walk of Fame Tent Photo by Jamie Biver

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