If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
The central theme of this book is about housing and all of the relevant issues surrounding it. The discussion centers around those who don't have it: the homeless... the unhoused. It's literally in the name. What makes this problem so difficult to solve? Are there differing philosophies regarding the best way to address housing and the unhoused?
Chapter two of Grace Can Lead Us Home delves into this topic by detailing the experience of Javier, ninety-one years old and a week away from homelessness. Having no surviving family, living by himself, and on a fixed income, he eventually finds his efforts to stave off eviction failing through no fault of his own after a developer buys his building and annually increases his rent. In the end, he is priced out of the home he occupied for 25 years with no where else to go.
Javier's story isn't unique to him. There are many like it all over the country. What is worse, the discussion of housing is a touchy one in the US where housing is either a condition of comfort and security for some or an investment vehicle for others. Many would rather see homelessness as the outcome of a person's poor choices than a thorny systematic issue.
Nye points out that while it sounds obvious, starting the discussion on housing rather than homelessness is more difficult people would like to admit.
Being aware of our biases regarding what we think people deserve, Nye argues that in order to make a lasting impact on homelessness, we need to establish a "Christian ethic of housing that aligns with best practices learned through decades of organizing and trial and error, and that reflects the character and desires of the Creator of the land we have claimed, divided, and developed."
Lack of affordable housing causes homelessness. The connection is definitive, provable, and irrefutable. The jury is not out on this matter. States with higher rent costs have more homelessness. Los Angeles always ranks near the top, though locals like to say that unhoused people flock to cities like Los Angeles for more preferable outdoor weather. This has been largely disproven—the vast majority of people experience homelessness in the same neighborhood or city where they were most recently housed. And the speculation also fails to account for the significant rates of homelessness in cities such as New York City or Seattle. (p. 51)
The above excerpt can and should challenge some obvious biases right out of the gate. While only one part of the story, it becomes more obvious that homelessness is the result of a "cascade of events and a cornucopia of risk factors."
We often associate disability, mental illness, and substance use with homelessness but Nye is quick to point out that these things are not the cause of homelessness so much as a contributing risk factor. I think framing homelessness around the idea of risk factors is an interesting perspective shift. As the author goes on to share, there's something of a feedback loop involved in all of this. Often lack of stable housing results in underwriting or exacerbating mental illness and substance use.
Additionally, we associate them with homelessness because they are realities that worsen without housing—a decrease in mental health and an increase in substance use are extremely predictable results of a person being without stable housing. In more affordable areas, these same risk factors exist but don’t represent an automatic plunge into homelessness. The state of Mississippi, for example, boasts the lowest cost of living in the United States and its lowest rate of homelessness. When people in Mississippi experience the same risk factors, rent remains relatively affordable, homelessness is avoided, and this stability affords people the means to alleviate other concerns. (p. 52)
Some readers may be surprised to find out that there is more than one way of addressing homelessness. The author breaks these into basically two camps, merit-based and housing-first. I'll address just the merit-based housing model in this article.
Merit-based housing, also known as treatment first, housing readiness, or the staircase model, begins at what I'll call the "personal responsibility" end of the spectrum. Here, the unhoused must earn their way into housing by completing particular goals (getting clean, successfully maintaining a treatment plan, staying medicine compliant, etc). The idea is that the unhoused individual needs to successfully prove themselves worthy of housing. Often, these programs also have a religious requirement such as attending church services, bible study, or some other church function.
The merit-based housing model makes a lot of sense to our American "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" sensibilities. It puts the outcome and success solely in the hands of those who are in need. You want it, show that you've done something to earn it.
While at face value, merit-based housing models seem like they make a lot of sense, injecting a type of accountability into the process, there are downsides that become obvious once you dig a little deeper. One very disturbing side effect is the idea that:
This merit-based system operates under a belief that the primary issue facing the unhoused is not material, but spiritual. (pp. 53-54)
The issue here is that it puts success and failure completely on the unhoused while ignoring larger social and political structures and failures that can occur simultaneously that undermine the success of the individual. Taking a whole-person approach to homelessness is absolutely necessary but will ultimately fail to capture the entirety of the problem if it brackets out a holistic view that incorporates our social and political realities.
An example Nye uses of the damaging outcomes of merit-based housing efforts is a quote from the CEO of Citygate Network (formerly known as the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions):
If we’re going to solve this, we have to change a lot of these lax laws that are allowing people to remain homeless and be comfortable. … What’s missing here is a sense of responsibility. Because of our desire to be humane, we have taken away any sense of responsibility from people who are on the street. Yes, there’s mental illness and there are addictions that have to be treated, but if you don’t have a sense of responsibility and you don’t feel some sort of pain from living this lifestyle, then we’re going to see more and more people there. (p. 54)
The CEO quoted here said this while calling on churches to stop feeding people in the park while also supporting the criminalization of homelessness.
There was a time in my life when I found this particular way of thinking obvious and much needed. I have, however, over time begun to see the insufficiency behind this merit-based approach.
There are a few counter-points I could make to this line of thinking but in the interest of brevity, I'l only name what I think is the most obvious deficiency: it doesn't actually address or fix the issue of homelessness. It's a shell game. All it does is criminalize a segment of the population and shifts them into other publicly funded institutions (prisons namely) that are poorly equipped to address the underlying issue. Once an unhoused person's time has been served, where does this process dump them? Back out onto the streets. Usually back into the same situation. It's squeezing a balloon. A population gets moved around, the housing issue isn't addressed, and stability is never introduced into the process. And now that population has a record, which makes getting a job and housing even more difficult.
Ultimately, this is what frustrates me about the merit-based responses to homelessness. It's not a solution. It's just a barrier to getting people actual help and further stigmatizes the population that churches and politicians want to see "transformed". No transformation has taken place.
Returning to the book, Nye goes on to make the following point:
It leads us to believe that people experiencing homelessness deserve to be miserable, alone, and in pain until they are willing to accept our conditional, coercive help. In the name of conversion, we have developed a model that is the opposite of God’s freely given and freely accepted grace. (p. 55)
More than being morally and theologically deficient, this approach also simply does not work. Its proponents use a self-fulfilling prophecy when celebrating its successes: If only everyone had the discipline and fortitude to finish the program, it would work for everyone. From a statistical standpoint, this model cannot meaningfully address homelessness. Having studied this approach and its outcomes, Shinn and Khadduri reach a damning conclusion: “The data seem to show that the treatment-first programs did not change people so much as they sorted them into those permitted to come indoors and those relegated to the streets.” In fact, the percentage of people accessing these shelters who go on to graduate and attain housing is lower than the percentage of people who resolve their own homelessness without any assistance. The vast majority do neither. (p. 55)
As I stated earlier on, there is a better way to address the homelessness issue. What Nye calls the "Housing-first" model.
This topic is important enough to me, and the community that I live in, that I've decided I'm going to break out the discussion of the housing-first model for another post.