News, Policies, & Trends

An Ambidextrous Approach to Ending Homelessness

By | Jun 13, 2018

While some of us can tune political divisiveness out by turning off our televisions and radios there are others who are the real victims of this discord; the homeless. The left/right divide halts action and in this instance, has the unfortunate outcome of people continuing to sleep on our streets.

Just this past week Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson unveiled the Making Affordable Housing Work Act of 2018, a bill that will bring significant left/right debate. If passed, it will force more people on our streets. But even if it doesn’t pass, resources to house people who are homeless will maintain as status quo, when more resources are desperately needed.

here are others who are the real victims of this discord; the homelessNeed other examples?

The divide over the long-term continuation of the Affordable Care Act, and the current talk to reduce Medicaid, are textbook examples of how our country’s struggles over political policies can lead to an increase in homelessness. When a person becomes gravely sick, and has no health insurance, their chance of losing everything — job, savings, and home — increases significantly.

So also, the debate over reducing rental assistance — a possible $8.8 billion reduction — would dramatically affect people struggling with poverty and therefore increase homelessness.

And the above arguments don’t even touch upon the disagreement surrounding how we solve our country’s homeless crisis.

The left see homelessness as a failure of our society and their policy suggestions are guided by compassion – warm beds, hot meals, and rental assistance. Society should provide housing and services for everyone who needs it.


Across the aisle, the right see homelessness as a failure of individuals. People struggling with homelessness should get a job, stop doing drugs or live with their families. The right believe free handouts — whether a meal, a bed or a housing voucher — do not help to alleviate America’s extreme poverty, rather society should let people work their way back into housing.

Both perspectives continue to push the country to providing insufficient solutions to the more than half million people in America who are homeless. It is a classic example of gridlock where the left hand doesn’t know, or doesn’t agree with what the right hand is doing. And meanwhile, the number of homeless in our country continues to grow.

Despite these partisan struggles over political policies, there is a more common sense, middle-ground approach toward dealing with our country’s homeless population. Call it the ambidextrous solution to ending homelessness.

Twelve years ago, author Malcolm Gladwell penned a New Yorker magazine article about “Million Dollar Murray,” a man who was homeless in Reno, Nevada for ten years. He used enough community resources — paramedic runs, ambulance rides, and hospital stays — that the cost shot up to a million dollars. It is not partisan to conclude that it would be more cost effective to pay for Murray’s apartment — whether he worked for it or not — than to allow him to live on the streets. And studies are in the works that prove just that.

Today cost effectiveness studies are a popular and effective tool being utilized to convince leaders across the political spectrum to invest in ending homelessness. In Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, it was discovered that in a span of five years the County spent more than $3 billion serving their homeless population. The findings sparked a new type of “investment” called “Social Impact Bonds.” Through this creative approach private sector investors funded the bonds with the goal of increasing services and housing outcomes (appeasing the left) while reducing public-sector costs and giving a return to investors (appeasing the right), a process that is now being reciprocated in jurisdictions across the country — Denver, Colorado; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; the state of Massachusetts. But, these studies are not the only new solution to ending homelessness.

A couple of decades ago, when I first started leading PATH, a homeless agency serving many cities and counties across California, transitional housing was the answer to homelessness. We would give a person a bed for a handful of months and help them find a job. In return, they would do chores, write a resume and deal with the issues that were at the root cause of their homelessness.

However, this decades-old approach failed as there were not enough permanent homes for these people to go, and too many of the people on our streets struggled with significant physical and mental disabilities or were so overwhelmed with a drug problem that they could not follow program rules.

Today, these same individuals are the most visible segment of our homeless population. We describe them as chronically homeless because they have been homeless for many years, and are still struggling with long-term disabilities. They’re our “Million Dollar Murrays,” and the only cost-effective, and humane solution is to provide a permanent apartment and physical or mental health care. This solution is called Housing First, and has become a left-right game-changer in terms of resolving homelessness.

But Housing First only works if we can provide enough permanent apartments for people struggling with homelessness, as well as provide the clinical care to help them overcome their disabilities and issues.

In this current political environment, the resources to help people get housed and keep them housed are being threatened by leaders who are tempted to go back to the old entrenched beliefs that homelessness is the fault of the individual. We must not let this happen.

If we are truly committed to solving homelessness, we must continue our ambidextrous approach to solving our country’s homelessness crisis, with more not less strategic resources.