A homeless man sits against a wall.
Garry Knight/Flickr

It is easy to forget that homelessness was supposed to be temporary. As states of emergency continue to pop up all over the United States, as ten-year plans to end homelessness continue to expire and get renamed, and as evictions and displacement and the number of people living on the streets continues to increase, homelessness becomes more and more entrenched as a permanent phenomenon. 

The neoliberal policies that emerged in the 1980s decimated federal funding for public housing and created the contemporary homelessness problem. They also shifted our entire material reality by privatizing formerly public goods such as public space, housing and healthcare. In addition, they expanded the prison system, criminalized social behaviors, destroyed the welfare state and centralized wealth for a few while increasing poverty for most. 

Instead of addressing the structures that have been forcing people onto the streets for the past 30 years, political discourse has continued to focus on managing the increasing homeless population. In the rush to appear to be doing something about the “homeless problem,” politicians often funnel large amounts of money into projects that do little or nothing to change the material conditions of the lives of homeless people. The intention is great, but the end result deceives the public and wastes millions of dollars. While many of these non-solutions can make some lives easier, they are not actual solutions toward ending homelessness. 

The most helpful solutions come from homeless people themselves. They foster self-determination for everyone, stress the need for housing and do not involve the police. 

WRAP tends to be critical of such non-solutions because we strive for alternatives that address homeless people’s needs and work to prevent anyone from becoming homeless.  

Our abridged list of non-solution solutions that ensure the status quo remains: 

1) Criminalizing existence  

One of cities’ favorite strategies is to force homeless people out of public space by criminalizing basic life-sustaining activities (sitting, lying, sleeping, resting, eating, etc.). Homeless people are told to move along, ticketed or arrested. Some cities punish people for camping when they have nowhere else to protect themselves from the elements, or for possessing “camping paraphernalia” with the “intent to use.” Cities and police departments conduct sweeps, often confiscating people’s property by claiming that it is “garbage.” 

While accruing fines for existing while poor in public — and receiving warrants for being unable to pay the fines — people are funneled into jails and prisons. Criminalizing existence entrenches people in poverty and creates obstacles for people trying to get off the streets. 

2) Collaborating with business improvement districts (BIDs) — gentrifying cities  

Business and property owners often collaborate with the police through BIDs to “address homelessness” and gentrify neighborhoods. BIDs are non-democratic, public-private entities that charge fees to property owners to supplement utilities like parking infrastructure and lighting maintenance. Additional fees fund sanitation services, private security, more police and anti-homeless initiatives. BIDs sometimes attempt to help “solve” the homeless problem by hiring poor and homeless people as security guards to police other poor and homeless people, and lobby in favor of criminalization policies. 

3) City-sanctioned encampments that deny self-determination 

The shelter system was created as an emergency option for people on the streets and was never intended as a long-term solution. Some cities are exploring the creation of sanctioned encampment shelters in abandoned areas – usually far away from city centers – to be run by the city or non-profits. 

Official strategies should honor the creative solutions designed by homeless people, like tiny homes and resident-organized encampments. But cities should not use these sanctioned communities to facilitate surveillance, to serve as justification to criminalize other incidents of homelessness or to cease their focus on creating permanent housing. 

4) Homeless courts – using the criminal legal system to fight problems created by the criminal legal system 

Criminalization is not a solution to homelessness. Yet there is a push to address homelessness through criminal legal approaches like homeless courts, which address homeless issues outside of the regular court system. Homeless courts often only offer special, reserved services if a person pleads guilty, which further institutionalizes and entrenches homelessness in the criminal legal system. These approaches exacerbate problems for homeless people and should not be used as a solution. 

5) Outreach – a great way to beef up your grant proposal  

Perhaps the most overused non-solution solution to homelessness is outreach. Outreach can be a useful tool in gathering information and creating a connection between people. At its best, outreach provides food, blankets, medical supplies, harm reduction materials, access to showers and “cop watching” for people living on the streets. 

But outreach can also be used to perpetuate the myth that people are in the streets because they don’t know where to go for help or are just too dysfunctional to get there. At its worst, this outreach is done to “look good” or simply to justify increased funding for the organizations coordinating the outreach. Outreach is an exercise in futility when all the service providers, treatment centers and housing have massive waitlists. 

6) Case Management, Life-Skills Training and the Homeless Industrial Complex 

Over the past 30 years, an entire industry has emerged to “help” homeless people. Most homeless service providers are required to offer case management and life-skills training. While these services are helpful for some people, they do nothing at all for most people or are directly harmful. Case managers who are assigned to provide emotional support and link homeless people to services are often unable to connect them to the most helpful services.  

Mandatory training programs in life skills like financial literacy, keeping appointments and interpersonal communication can be deeply condescending and harmful. Unless the trainings involve building housing and purchasing land, they will continue to be mostly irrelevant. 

7) Navigation centers, coordinated entry systems, vulnerability indexes – the many ways to link homeless people up with housing that doesn’t exist 

These solutions are the least harmful, but waste money on being marginally helpful. The Bay Area in California is pushing for new Navigation Centers that “navigate” homeless people to services in the city. This $3 million solution is intended to be a one-stop shop where people can access all of the city’s services. Similarly, in Sacramento, the Common Cents service coordination program uses a “vulnerability index” to prioritize the needs of homeless people at the highest risk of premature death. These are good approaches, but the reality is that there is not enough housing for the most vulnerable, and waiting lists can take years to show substantial movement. 

Homelessness will end when everyone has a house to live in and can access basic needs like eating, sleeping, resting, using the bathroom and having contact with other humans. This is not an idealistic and unattainable goal. There is enough money in this country to ensure that everyone has a house — after all, we have no problem building luxury condos that are only accessible to the most wealthy. 

Ending homelessness is a problem of political will. The time to be bold and invest in a world where we can all thrive is now. 

Courtesy of Homeward Street Journal (Sacramento, California) and the International Network of Street Newspapers (INSP.ngo). The Western Regional Advocacy Project was founded in 2005 by social justice organizations across the West Coast.