How to Solve Homelessness

Image by MattGush | Canva

Last week I discussed a contentious decision from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which limited a city’s response to homelessness where there is no available bed for those lacking shelter. This is one of our time’s most important and fraught issues, now too often associated with resignation despite many good intentions.  Roughly 600,000 Americans are homeless on any given night. Perhaps 200,000 of those are in California, but just about every big city in the United States has a significant homeless population.


While every story is different, there are common denominators.


Many homeless are mentally ill. Many are drug-addicted. Some are both.  Some are neither mentally ill nor drug abusers but simply cannot afford a place to live because they have no job or because the cost of housing is so high that even with a job, they can’t afford shelter. The Ninth Circuit requirement for a bed before cities remove the homeless from public spaces presents a practical issue.  When cities have announced that they will shelter all the homeless, they have become a magnet for more homeless. That was Portland’s experience.


Perhaps as a result, cities won’t announce a public policy of housing every homeless person. We’re left with a catch-22, where cities and citizens are locked in a relentless cycle of being forced to accept the unacceptable.   By now, it’s clear that homelessness will never solve itself.


So here’s a proposal… one that requires national will and investment.


Every major city should offer shelter to those who live on the streets. Not a big home, not a Manhattan hotel, just basic shelter — be it a tiny house or a converted apartment, dormitory style living or a converted correctional facility or otherwise. But it comes with conditions.


The formerly homeless person must accept drug counseling if they are addicted; they must accept mental health services if they are mentally ill, and they must work or look for a job if they are able-bodied. If they don’t do these things and return to the streets despite the availability of shelter, they can and should be arrested, for they will not be homeless.  No one should be allowed to live in the public spaces of our cities.


Yep, that’s all expensive.  But probably cheaper to provide supportive housing than to permit homelessness and all that goes with it, from medical emergencies to long hospitalizations from violent crime to lengthy incarcerations and the decline of our downtowns.


If just a few cities sign on, each will bear a huge burden, and other cities will be relatively free riders.  So this will only work if all our big cities and their states agree to join a compact.  Ultimately it will be cheaper and more humane to solve this problem now together.


Who will be first?


Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.

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