Homelessness can make us uncomfortable. It should. As much as we are tempted to look away, we cannot deny the obvious human need when we see our neighbors, forced by circumstance or a disabling condition, living on our streets and in our shelters.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just released its latest national homelessness estimate, finding that nearly 554,000 persons experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2017. While the numbers show important progress is being made, they also reveal the tremendous need for affordable housing, especially in high-cost areas such as Los Angeles, Sacramento, Alameda County (Calif.) and Seattle.
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The adage "all housing is local" is especially true when it comes to homelessness. In many cities along the West Coast and in the Northeast, the severe shortage of affordable rental homes is driving up the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness nationwide.
Meanwhile, there is a growing list of cities, counties and states where we’re seeing remarkable reductions in homelessness, even ending homelessness among veterans or others living on the streets for long periods of time. Most recently, local leaders in the Kansas City and Pittsburgh areas declared an effective end to veteran homelessness. Communities are doing this by creating systems that proactively connect homeless people with housing.
For years, there has been a growing mountain of data showing that a Housing First approach works to reduce not only costs to taxpayers but the human toll as well. The evidence is clear: Doing something is better and less expensive than doing nothing. That something is prioritizing housing. Once we give people a stable place to live, it becomes much easier to provide mental and physical health treatment, education and job training — essential rungs on the ladder out of homelessness.
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As we prepare to turn the calendar on another year, we can say without hesitation that we know how to end homelessness. Still, there are larger economic forces at work that require marketwide response to the affordable rental housing crisis playing out in many communities.
HUD and our local partners around the country are on the front lines in this struggle. While the level of targeted homeless assistance continues to grow, the level of need remains high. HUD programs and local initiatives such as Measure H in Los Angeles County, which is providing more than $355 million annually over 10 years to fund ongoing services and housing, can be part of the solution.
But homelessness demands the attention of everybody — not just at this time of year, but every day of the year.
During this holiday season, most of us will enjoy hearth and home with our families and friends. By contrast, homelessness knows no season. As a nation, we need to reflect upon, pray upon, and act upon the root causes of homelessness and reach for ways to break the pattern that traps too many in a cycle of homelessness. Above all, let us not look away.
Dr. Ben Carson is the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.