What Causes Homelessness?

March to Close the Gaps

(Image by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue)

I’ve worked in social services for about a decade, almost all of it working on various forms of supportive housing. These days I chair the Suburban Metro Area Continuum of Care, and sit on the governing board of Heading Home Ramsey, in addition to my actual job cobbling together finances for housing and homeless programs at a non-profit. I spend a lot of my days working on regional strategies to end homelessness. 

With the recent uptick in visible homelessness in the Twin Cities, I see and hear a lot of Very Bad Takes about homelessness. So really, this could be a whole series about myths and bad ideas when it comes to homelessness and those experiencing it. But I want to zoom out and focus on something very basic. 

Homelessness is caused by not having a home. That’s it.

I know, you’re going to say “but Matt, Wilder says about 85% of individuals experiencing homelessness statewide report having a serious or chronic disability, defined as a ‘mental illness, substance abuse disorder, or other condition that limits work or activities of daily living,’ doesn’t that cause homelessness?”

“Wilder also says 24% of individuals experiencing homelessness have a chemical dependency diagnosis, doesn’t that cause homelessness?”

The answer is that no, those things don’t cause homelessness. Nor do physical disabilities, lack of sufficient gumption, or any other of the myriad things I’ve heard blamed.

Let me focus on mental illness, since this is the one I hear most often. NAMI says that 1 in 5 adults in the US experience some sort of mental illness, and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness. Chances are even if you are lucky enough not to, you have family members and friends with some sort of mental illness, and you probably know somebody or multiple somebodys with a serious mental illness, as well. I certainly do.

Now, 4% of the population is certainly not homeless, so what’s different about the .1% of the population that ends up homeless? Well, it turns out that they don’t have a home. I know this sounds reductive, but I’m trying to make a point here. If mental illness causes homelessness, why are only a fraction of the people diagnosed with a serious mental illness winding up on the streets?

Any number of things can go wrong and cause someone to miss a rent check and end up getting evicted. Whether it’s an unexpected car repair, a relapse, a broken leg and expensive ER trip, or a need for a couple weeks of inpatient treatment that means you can’t work, the end result is the same: you don’t have a home. And once you’re homeless, it’s so much harder to get back on track and find a place to live. Minnesota is particularly bad on allowing landlords to evict extremely quickly with very little cause, which is a topic for another day.

Trying to parse and solve all these different causes, you’ll chase your tail until the end of time. The bottom line is that for some reason, a person can’t afford a home. The solution to that is to help them be able to afford a home.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t improve mental health care in this country, raise the minimum wage, reduce our dependence on expensive automobiles, and fix our broken health care system. We should! But that’s not how you end homelessness. You end homelessness by giving people homes.

So. The thing that causes homelessness is not having a home. It follows that the most important thing we can do to end homelessness is to provide homes for those who need them. This is the theory behind Housing First, the best practice in providing housing for those in need. If you have a home, it immediately becomes easier to deal with all the other things you have going on in your life. 

Why is this important? Because it focuses on the actual cause of homelessness, which allows us to look at the solutions that will actually work. We need more homes. Of all kinds. Public housing, subsidized affordable developments, market-rate housing – we need it all. We need more subsidies for people who need them. There are a lot of closed waiting lists on this page. And we need more workers to help them navigate that whole mess of a housing/subsidy world. If we had so many homes that affordable homes are readily available, and we had subsidies for those who needed them, we could live in a world where homelessness is brief, rare, and non-recurring

How do I know this? Because we had that world. There were mental illness, chemical dependency, and medical emergencies back in the 70s, too. But homelessness was almost non-existent. Then we spent 50 years slashing funding for public housing and making it impossible to build low cost housing (or really, much housing at all) in our cities. And now we’re here. If we truly believe that everyone has a fundamental right to housing, we’re doing a bad job of showing it.

The best time to start reversing this trend was 50 years ago. The second best time is now.

About Matt Lewis

Matt Lewis has lived in Minneapolis since 2009, after growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and spending time in Luxembourg and rural Ohio during college. He lives in South Uptown with his partner and their two cats, where they take full advantage of a Greenway entrance two blocks from their front door, and a bus stop directly in front of their fourplex. He also spends too much time on Twitter as @avocadoplex