The Problem of Homelessness

In the 1980s and 1990s, most observers of the urban scene agreed that the number of homeless people was increasing. More recently, higher levels of unemployment and the wave of foreclosures following the 2008 financial crisis have undoubtedly pushed homelessness higher. Nationally, in the past several years rents have risen much faster than personal incomes. That, too, has added to the problem. Planners are certainly not the only professionals to be concerned with this problem. Social workers, mental health professionals, the police, and attorneys have much more direct contact with the problem than do planners. But the problem of homelessness does have a planning dimension.

The number of homeless people is not known with any degree of accuracy, since they are a hard group to count and to define. Those who have looked at the question attribute the homeless problem to several overlapping causes. A certain number of homeless people are so because of mental illness. The number of people with mental illness on the street has been increased by the deinstitutionalization of mental patients in recent years. That occurred partly because of what is generally referred to as the "patient's rights" movement, which took the position that no patient should be held against his or her will unless that patient constituted a threat to himself or herself, or to other people. But note that causality can run both ways. If someone's mental health is already shaky, the stress of being homeless may push that person into clinical mental illness. A certain percentage of the homeless population is so because of involvement with drugs or alcohol. Obviously, there is an overlap with the first category. We also note that the stress of being homeless may push someone in the direction of drugs or alcohol.

In addition, there are those who are homeless for economic reasons. Thus unemployment or family breakup can contribute to homelessness. Writers of a conservative bent have tended to stress the character and behavior of homeless individuals. Writers on the other side of the political spectrum tend to emphasize poverty and housing costs.

The planner may be able to make some contribution to easing the problem of homelessness via his or her involvement with housing policy. Municipal housing policy affects the entire housing stock, and that includes the low-cost end of housing, whose availability is directly related to the problem of homelessness. William Tucker, among other writers, has argued that municipal housing policy has accidentally contributed to homelessness by drying up the supply of cheap housing.9

Urban Renewal (see Chapter 11) demolished a great deal of low-rent, low-quality housing. The goal was to eliminate low-quality housing, but doing that inevitably shrank the supply of low-cost housing at the same time. At the very bottom of the rental market, Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels and flophouses have been particular targets of neighborhood and business district improvement programs. However, if the most that someone can afford to pay for housing is a few dollars a night, then eliminating the SRO or the flophouse renders that person homeless. Note that the SRO that is torn down in one place cannot generally be replaced with one elsewhere, since most zoning codes will not permit their construction. Then, too, the SRO is likely to be an old structure that has depreciated to a fraction of its replacement cost. Thus a new structure to serve the same purpose would not be feasible financially, even if it were legal. William Tucker, cited earlier, argues that rent controls also produce homelessness. He argues that by driving down vacancy rates, they make low-cost housing unavailable. If you need a cheap apartment, the fact that some people are now living in such, thanks to rent control, does you little good if the vacancy rate hovers near zero.

Assuming that there is some truth in the preceding line of argument, what is the planner to do? Part of the planner's role, as suggested elsewhere in this book, is to take a big picture view and to make plain the connections, like those previously discussed, to the rest of the body politic. But the planner who sees the problem in the terms just suggested is in a difficult situation. Homeless people do not constitute a powerful political constituency, whereas businesspeople and permanent residents do. Then, too, it is easy to be sympathetic both with homeless individuals and also with those who wish homeless people to be anywhere but here. One can feel sympathy for the homeless person who stations himself or herself in the shopkeeper's doorway and also feel sympathy for the shopkeeper, who does not want this individual to drive away his or her customers. The planner can advocate housing policies that do not reduce the supply of housing at the low end. He or she can push for some expansion of low-cost housing through more flexible zoning (for example, by permitting accessory apartments or apartments over stores). Such units may or may not house the homeless directly, but they will ease the pressure on the remaining low-cost housing stock. For those of the homeless population who for reasons of mental health cannot function on their own, the planner can advocate flexibility in zoning and housing codes so as to make it easier to build group homes and other forms of congregate housing.

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