Last week’s New Yorker featured a 15,000–word exploration of what happens when government gives housing to the homeless. The article profiled a Brooklyn supportive-housing program that provides formerly homeless people with private apartments run in accordance with Housing First principles. Building residents face no behavioral expectations.
Author Jennifer Egan portrays a chaotic scene, overrun with addiction, premature mortality, and crime. Nonetheless, Egan (a novelist by trade) argues that this program succeeds in offering residents “a new lease on life” and should be replicated everywhere homelessness is found. Readers may be reminded of the third chapter of Michael Shellenberger’s book San Fransicko: “The Experiment Was a Success but the Patients Died.”
One resident threatens a security guard with a Taser. Another menaces a tenant with a “big kitchen knife.” Serious mental illness either goes untreated or is not treated effectively. One “savvy and resourceful” resident uses her apartment to fence stolen retail goods to fund her heroin habit. Not only is drug use normalized, causing a wave of overdoses; drug dealing in the building is also common. The local police precinct considers the building a “hot spot.” Those few residents who don’t use drugs report feeling socially isolated. Meantime, the program promotes “communal use,” so as to reduce the risk of fatal overdoses.
At the end of the article, readers learn that 16 inhabitants of the building died, mainly of suspected overdoses, in just the first eight months of this year. With 305 apartments for the formerly homeless in the building, this represents a death rate of about 5 percent, though the actual rate is probably higher because apartments were not filled until partway through that time. Even the chronically homeless understand that these deaths are abnormal. Egan admits that “[n]early everyone I knew [in the building] had seen a body bag leaving the building.” One tenant says that if the deaths keep up, “I need to be transferred, ’cause I can’t stay in this type of situation. I can’t!”
The program’s high death rate owes to several factors. Private apartments are more accommodating to drug use than congregate-style shelters. They also provide addicts more time and funds to get high—a problem that researchers have elsewhere called the “check effect.”
Most importantly, this Housing First program, like many nationwide, gives preferential treatment to those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Those who stay sober and are trying to get their life together are left on the street, while those who can show they are abusing drugs get a brand-new private apartment. To say that this sends the wrong message to the homeless is an understatement.
Egan appears to have consulted no skeptics of Housing First policy for this article, in contrast with New York Times reporter Jason DeParle in his June survey of the homelessness debate. Homelessness, for Egan, is a question of settled science. The only mystery is why we’re not funding more Housing First programs. Her article would have benefitted from grappling with a 2019 analysis showing that the recent decline in veterans’ homelessness has more to do with the decline of veterans than with Housing First. Abundant evidence suggests that Housing First provides little if any lasting health benefits.
The Brooklyn-based Egan’s incuriosity could be a legacy of New York City’s right to shelter, which has made the debate over Housing First in New York less robust than elsewhere. Ardent Housing Firsters favor permanent housing solutions and see the right to shelter, which has motivated billions in spending on temporary housing, as a giveaway to an allegedly corrupt local “industry [of] dozens and dozens of nonprofits that get millions of dollars a year in contracts to run shelters.”
California, for example, has no right to shelter. It therefore never had as many defenders of shelter as New York. That allowed enthusiasm over Housing First in California to rise in the 2010s but also to crash harder, when the billions invested failed—spectacularly—to improve street conditions. Egan’s article would have been harder to write in Los Angeles.
Most Americans would have a different definition than The New Yorker of what “success” in homeless services looks like. Egan’s chief protagonist is Jessica (a pseudonym), whose “heroin addiction made her eligible” for housing. She’s the one who fences stolen merchandise and she runs another scam in which she pretends to be pregnant to panhandle for heroin money. Right after signing the lease, Jessica catches a ride with her caseworker back to Manhattan, since “[h]er heroin dealer, her panhandling spots” were still over there. Jessica briefly goes clean but then relapses on heroin adulterated with animal tranquilizer that she obtained from a dealer living in the building. But Egan resolves to look on the bright side, arguing that “in the halting realm of opioid recovery a spell of sobriety is an accomplishment.”
Here we have a social program through which the government provides apartments both to active addicts (in preference to those who are just homeless, not addicted) and to their dealers. No one’s required to stop using, and the program encourages residents to structure their social lives around drugs, so that someone else can be around to revive them if they overdose. And the only tragedy here is that there isn’t more funding for programs like this? One shudders to think what failure would look like.
Photo By MICHAEL MACOR/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images