Editorials, Opinion

Solving homelessness crisis more about priority than money

If it seems like the homeless population has grown, that’s because it has — everywhere.

According to the annual point-in-time survey, there are almost 71,000 more people experiencing homelessness this year compared to last — an increase of 12% — totaling around 653,000 people. This is the highest level of homelessness recorded since the survey first started in 2007.

Surprisingly, homelessness levels remained steady through 2021 and 2022 before the jump in 2023. But those were the years that pandemic assistance was in full effect: child tax credits, repayment pauses, stimulus checks and rental assistance programs. Then all those support services expired and Congress declined to renew them.

Suddenly, the lingering economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic hit people in full force: the housing shortage, the skyrocketing rent and the across-the-board inflation that pushed the cost of daily living expenses far above comparatively flat incomes. And without a safety net, many people found themselves falling into poverty and homelessness.

Homelessness increased 11% among single individuals, but there was also a 7% increase in veteran homelessness and, tragically, a more than 15% increase among families with children.

How do we fix this crisis?

Advocacy groups like to say it would cost $20 billion to end homelessness in the U.S. Unfortunately, that number is over a decade old and referenced a yearly cost. A 2021 PolitiFact article estimated the cost would be over $59 billion per year, based on the cost of housing vouchers ($8,000) and the number of households eligible to use them (7.4 million). The price has likely gone up since then.

We can’t put a specific price tag on ending homelessness — but there are a few things we do know. Multiple studies in the last decade show a “housing first” approach is both the most cost-effective approach and the most successful.

A review prepared by the HUD Office of Policy Development and Research (itself outdated, but supported by later research) lays out the most expensive to least expensive approaches, in terms of money spent per individual:

  • Emergency shelters, especially for families and women because they require greater privacy.
  • Transitional housing, defined by HUD as “temporary housing with supportive services to individuals and families” that covers housing costs and supportive services for up to two years.
  • Permanent supportive housing, defined by HUD as “permanent housing in which housing assistance (e.g., long-term leasing or rental assistance) and supportive services are provided  ….”

The least expensive approach of all is “rental assistance without supportive services,” which we understand to mean financial assistance provided to people before they become homeless.

However, all the best solutions require more affordable housing: More housing units need to be built, and they must be offered at affordable prices. (“Affordable housing” costs no more than 30% of an individual’s gross income; based on West Virginia’s median household income of $50,000, that means no more than $1,250 a month.)

States and municipalities have to be willing to invest in re-homing and financial assistance programs, as well as prioritize affordable housing projects over high-end builds that most people can’t afford. (Looking at you, Morgantownhouse.) No one likes the idea of Section 8 housing going up in their backyards, but low-income housing is a far better alternative to people living on the streets.

The money for these programs and projects exists, but lawmakers and local officials must be willing to allocate the funds. Take, for example, the $70 million state and local governments will scrape together for a “bridge to nowhere” as we await the Harmony Grove interchange. They managed to find millions of dollars to appease a business, but they are somehow unable to find the funds to support everyday people. The same can be said of the federal government, too: It’s rarely an issue of money — it’s one of prioritizing.