What Joe Biden could do to truly make a difference on homelessness

President Trump’s approach to homelessness was mostly unsuccessful. He had decent instincts but no clear vision, and anyway, most of the crucial policy levers on homelessness are state and local. The street crises in, say, San Francisco or LA were beyond his policy grasp. He made some good appointments, but not where it mattered the most. Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was no match for his agency’s deep-state elements.

So what will Joe Biden get to do? He inherits a system mostly unchanged from when he left office as vice president. And the biggest questions on federal homelessness policy depend on the outcome of the Senate races in Georgia on Jan. 5. Biden proposed an ambitious housing agenda whose splashiest ideas, such as a universal housing-choice voucher program, would need congressional support.

The main instrument of federal homelessness policy is the “Continuum of Care” program, overseen by HUD. At around $2 billion, the program’s cost seems trivial next to a $4 trillion federal budget. But the offer of free money has empowered the feds to exert great influence over homeless services in communities across the nation.

President Bill Clinton set up Continuum of Care with markedly localistic intentions. Washington would raise money and distribute it to communities who’d decide how best to spend it. But throughout the Obama years, HUD abandoned localism to insist on conformity with a philosophy known as Housing First.

Housing First has two premises. First, permanently subsidized housing is the only solution to homelessness, and, second, all housing benefits should be provided unconditionally. Housing First proponents are notorious for their intolerance. Their rise to dominance has led to funding cuts to high-quality service providers. The ideological proclivities of HUD’s career staff forced those cuts: They had nothing to do with any local assessment of community conditions.

Team Trump tried to roll back heavy-handed Obama policies pertaining to transgender access to shelters and sobriety requirements. Homeless-shelter managers deal with volatile situations. Someone running a domestic-violence shelter, whose traumatized clients want some time away from biological males, might not want to always accommodate trans individuals.

It may not be a problem, or only a problem in some occasions. But it’s a call best made case by case, by experienced managers who know their business and their people, not DC-based advocates who believe that biological-sex-based eligibility protocols are tantamount to Jim Crow.

Sobriety requirements are anathema to Housing Firsters, who reject placing conditions on the receipt of any benefit like shelter. Prohibiting sobriety requirements harms many ex-offenders on parole, who often wind up in shelters or similar temporary housing programs. Surrounding them with active users tempts them into violating the terms of their release.

Then, too, homeless shelter managers trying to support former addicts on their path to recovery are doing heroic work that merits the unqualified support of the feds. Under the Housing First regime, shelter managers who want to make use of sobriety requirements jeopardize their access to HUD funds.

When Georgia voters head to the polls in January, most will be scarcely aware of the runoffs’ implications for domestic-violence shelters in West Virginia and street conditions in Frisco. If Biden gets what he wants, he will expand the Obama system, giving it billions more in funding. His plan wouldn’t “end” homelessness, but it would bail out the failed systems in New York and California, who’ve been pouring cash into the problem without much to show for it.

There is a real question as to how deeply the federal government should involve itself in homelessness at all. Many of the leading drivers of homelessness, such as housing regulations and misguided mental-health policies, are mainly areas of state and local responsibility.

Just as it’s hard to blame Trump for all COVID-related harm, it’s hard to blame the feds for the homelessness crisis in a handful of big cities — and not an issue most other places.

Stephen Eide is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow.

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