Advocates of “Housing First” as the solution for homelessness are praising a new study that supposedly proves their case. The trouble is, the study — conducted by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) — proves no such thing. In fact, it highlights what federal and state officials keep dodging, the problems of drug addiction and mental illness within the homeless population.
The study, “Toward a New Understanding: The California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness,” surveyed 3,198 participants and did in-depth interviews with 365. The data reveals complex, multifaceted causes behind homelessness and a population suffering disproportionately from severe mental illness and substance use. This is far from a slam dunk for “Housing First” proponents.
But, of course, the corporate media have been quick to skew the study for their own purposes. For example, The New York Times recently cited the study in an article, claiming it to have found that “a lack of affordable housing, not mental illness or substance abuse, was the main driver of homelessness in California.”
Similarly, the Los Angeles Times used the study in an attempt to correct the “common perception” that has “tied the road to homelessness with mental illness and drug addiction,” citing “precarious poverty” as the true cause.
“Housing First” policy — free housing with no requirements for treatment or training — was adopted as federal housing policy by the Obama administration in 2013 with the claim that it would end homelessness by 2023. Yet while spending on free housing has skyrocketed, an epidemic of homelessness has only gripped our nation tighter.
California has been operating under a state “Housing First” mandate for seven years with nothing but record-breaking tragedy to show for it. But that did not stop the study’s authors from recommending further subsidies and stipends for homeless Californians.
The most misconstrued takeaway from the study is that loss of income is the No. 1 reason for loss of housing. However, when the authors asked participants to select the primary reason for leaving their last housing situation, only 12 percent selected lost or reduced income. Buried in the footnotes is the important fact that 19 percent of participants were excluded from this question due to having entered homelessness from an institutional setting — such as jail, prison, or a hospital. When this is accounted for, the number of participants who entered homelessness primarily due to a loss of income falls to below 10 percent of all study participants.
When participants were asked to select all of the factors that contributed to their loss of housing, — from social, economic, and health categories — prevalence of social reasons outweighed economic reasons 63 to 47 percent.
If loss of income was truly the most significant contributor to homelessness, one would think the majority of people without housing would be in search of income. But only 44 percent of participants reported that they were currently seeking employment.
The study’s data has to be misrepresented and distorted in order to fit the reductionist narrative that money is ultimately the cause of — and solution to — homelessness.
Another misconstrued takeaway from the study is that homelessness has very little to do with mental illness or substance use. Again, the study’s own data suggests otherwise. Eighty-two percent of participants reported experiencing a period of significant mental health issues over their lifetime, and 27 percent reported being hospitalized for mental illness with over half of these hospitalizations occurring prior to their first episode of homelessness.
Sixty-five percent of participants reported having used amphetamines, cocaine, or opioids regularly at some point in their lifetime, and 64 percent of these reported that their regular drug use started prior to their first episode of homelessness.
Similarly, while 62 percent of participants reported heavy drinking at some point in their lifetime, 79 percent of these reported that heavy drinking started prior to their first episode of homelessness.
These numbers reveal a population greatly affected by mental illness and substance use. If not causal, these factors are surely barriers to sustained housing access. More importantly, they are barriers to a healthy, flourishing life. Ignoring the reality of mental illness and substance use as deeply intertwined with homelessness is a cruel attempt to prop up the narrative that free housing is the answer.
The study’s policy recommendations were heavily influenced both by the fact that 90 percent of participants agreed that a housing voucher would have prevented their homelessness and by the fact that 82 percent agreed a one-time payment of as little as $5,000 would have kept them housed. The authors did not ask the participants if social or health-related resources could have prevented their loss of housing.
If it were true that a one-time payment of $5,000 is all it takes to prevent homelessness, then businessman Mark Benioff’s $30 million grant to fund the UCSF study could have prevented as many as 6,000 entries into homelessness. Better yet, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $4.8 billion budget for California’s homeless crisis could keep up to 960,000 people housed. That’s more than double the entire homeless population of the United States as of 2022.
Undoubtedly, financial support plays a role in lifting people out of homelessness, but evidence tells us that, for most people, financial support is meaningless without something more. People experiencing homelessness need community, healthy relationships, mental health support, recovery, and accountability to be truly empowered.
Following the release of the UCSF study, the media have heralded free housing as the solution and chastised those who think mental illness, substance use, and personal responsibility play a role. But the data is proof that it takes a feat of statistical and rhetorical gymnastics to continue to stand by “Housing First” as the answer to homelessness.
Tragically, the victims of this failed policy are the very men and women its proponents claim to help.