Opinion: Why Building More Shelters Won’t Solve Homelessness

Many naive policymakers discuss homelessness in purely economic terms, perpetrating a distracting myth. Sure, people become homeless for diverse reasons. One might be a LGBT youth, kicked out by parents. Another might be a spouse fleeing an abusive relationship. Those are prime candidates for conventional outreach and solutions: Make them aware of shelters and house them temporarily.

But unlike the individuals above, the coterie of able-bodied young men living under my freeway exit could certainly pool resources (including government-provided funds) and share a modest apartment in a down-market locale — which would be better than sleeping outside. Understanding why they don’t is key to understanding the issue.

So is historical perspective. Some believe “funding emergency shelters and transitional housing for homeless families and individuals and providing new rental housing for families and individuals with special needs” will solve the problem. That language comes from a 1988 statewide ballot initiative, which dedicated over $600 million in today’s dollars to ameliorating homelessness. It’s one of dozens of spending programs that have done little.

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