“Housing First” was created originally by New York social worker Sam Tsembris in 1992. The idea was so simple as to be absurd: homelessness is caused by a lack of housing; thus, we should simply give the homeless homes. Soon after, many private and public figures touted that we just needed to supply every chronically homeless person with a home and we could end the homelessness pandemic within a decade. Since then, the federal government has mandated the Housing First strategy nationwide, and Dallas has proudly adopted it.
Now that 20 years have passed, the results of the Housing First experiment are in, and it hasn’t worked. Nationwide street homelessness has increased by nearly a fourth and here in Dallas there are around 4,410 homeless individuals on the streets on any given night, an astounding 92% increase just from 2019.
The important question then is: why has this new strategy not been effective? One reason many might not consider is that the policy has attracted people who are not actually homeless, but rather they want to capitalize on rent-free, permanent housing. Furthermore, for those who are homeless, recent studies have shown that a city must build 10 “Permanent Supportive Housing” units to get a sole homeless person off the streets. Even with that one person in a house, that success quickly fades due to the amount of new people who are entering the homeless system.
Another reason the Housing First policy hasn’t work is because it ignores some of the major problems for the chronically homeless that aren’t just their lack of a home. One study from the UCLA discovered that more than 75% of the homeless population struggles with a serious mental illness, and at least 75% battle substance abuse, with the majority having both. Solving these underlying issues are essential—as the issue isn’t just the need for a house but the
need for permanency, which can only be achieved through mental health and substance abuse interventions and treatments.
Often simply providing people with subsidized housing does not reduce drug use, it actually does just the opposite. The lack of mandatory treatment in these free units gives
these people more money to pursue these destructive vices and addictions.
In Dallas, the city council has allocated millions to this failed policy initiative, most recently $72 million in 2021, and homelessness has only gotten worse throughout the city. The Housing First policy is inefficient, expensive, and in many cases, counterproductive. While a small minority of individuals may have benefited from this strategy, it is clear now that pursuing this policy will not end homelessness.
If Dallas is ever going to solve this homeless crisis, city leaders must end their support of this broken policy and bring forth a solution that will seriously address the issues of homelessness.
Dallas residents deserve better, the homeless need better, and it begins with a sobering re-evaluation of the situation.