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"Housing First" Is Built Atop The Worst Argument In The World
The Chronically Homeless Are What People Care About
The Worst Argument In The World
In “The noncentral fallacy - the worst argument in the world?” Scott Alexander identifies an argument “so powerful that somewhere between many and most of the bad arguments in politics, philosophy and culture take some form of the noncentral fallacy.” Skip to the next heading if you’re familiar with it.
To quote liberally from his post:
A criminal is technically someone who breaks the law, and [Martin Luther King Jr] knowingly broke a law against peaceful anti-segregation protest
[…] The archetypal criminal is a mugger or bank robber. He is driven only by greed, preys on the innocent, and weakens the fabric of society. Since we don't like these things, calling someone a "criminal" naturally lowers our opinion of them.
[…]But King doesn't share the important criminal features of being driven by greed, preying on the innocent, or weakening the fabric of society that made us dislike criminals in the first place. Therefore, even though he is a criminal, there is no reason to dislike King.
Many more examples in the post. In summary -
"X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member."
The Homeless Archetype
Human archetypes are represented in a culture’s myths, and western culture is no different. We’re too sophisticated to have myths about gods and spirits, so instead our cultural myths center around superhumans with magical powers in bright spandex. The Homeless Archetype was personified in Hancock, as portrayed by Will Smith. This Homeless person is chronically homeless for years, has mental problems and substance abuse problems, sleeps in public areas, and is filthy, violent, and crude.
If you ask most people what they worry about when they worry about homelessness in their neighborhoods, this is the person at the top of their minds. It’s what almost everyone means when they speak of the Homeless Problem.
“Housing First” Claims To Solve Homelessness
It’s a common claim that simply giving homeless people free housing will solve homelessness. Every few months Noah Smith reiterates exactly this. Recently Scott Alexander seemed to come out in favor, saying
Housing First seems to work in getting people housing. It probably also helps people use fewer medical services, and it might or might not save money compared to not doing it
San Francisco has about 7,000 homeless people. The median SF apartment costs about $3,000 per month […] So that’s $250 million/year to rent every homeless person an apartment.
…. and when I went to go grab the link for those quotes, I saw he posted a follow-up post while I was writing this, which addresses everything I’m about to say. Specifically, see item #7 (as well as item #3)
Well, I already drafted most of this post, so I’ll continue, though in an abbreviated form.
The Non-Central Homeless Overwhelm Statistics
Despite the archetype being what people care about, in terms of statistics, most of the “homeless” are not these sorts of people. The majority of the homeless are temporarily homeless — between jobs, or between housing, for a few days or a few weeks. Many of them stay in temporary housing (hotels, shelters) or with family or friends (on couches or on air mattresses in a spare room), or in their cars.
These are the people who are immensely helped by being given a free home. This is kinda obvious, similarly to how anyone poor can be helped by being given two hundred thousand dollars.
But they are not the Archetype that people worry about. The Archetypical homeless don't have homelessness as their core problem. They suffer some sort of chronic disability, usually mental or addiction. Simply giving them a home won't fix this, and they'll be homeless again in a year. They are the Chronically Homeless. All that will be accomplished by giving them homes is the slow destruction of homes.
Three Personal Examples
These are people I knew personally while these things were happening, and therefore very relevant data to me.
Guy X spent thousands of dollars and months of labor converting his garage to a one-unit homeless shelter. (Yes, this is against all the rules, he had heroic responsibility mindset). He took in the very-visible homeless you see on street corners. After nearly a year of being threatened, robbed, assaulted on at least one occasion, and having the place trashed many times over, he gave up. These people needed more than simply a place to live.
Woman Y was in a relationship with a guy who had been one of those street-bum homeless, but recently returned to regular society. They were very happy, until a little over a year later, when he had another break (turns out this is a pattern for him) and decided to pawn or abandon everything in his life and go live on the streets again. She was heartbroken. He was unable to continue to function in normal society despite having a home, a job, a bank account, and a romantic partner because underlying mental issues re-emerged. He had a place to live, and that didn't help him not be homeless.
A close relative of mine owns his home outright. This is due to luck, help from his parents, and being extremely responsible with his bonuses & pay from active military duty. No debt, just HOA & taxes.
He had a schizophrenic break. Over the course of a few months, he absolutely destroyed the place, was found on the streets by some cops, and was involuntarily committed.
After three weeks in the mental ward of a hospital, he stabilized on meds & released. With his parents' help, he rebuilt his place (Tens of thousands of dollars, and months of labor). About a year later he stopped taking his meds (bad side-effects), relapsed, and the same damn thing happened. Again, parents helped him after, and now he's on meds that have side-effects he can handle.
Noteworthy — having a place that he owned debt-free wasn't enough to keep him from being homeless, because mental illness is that bad. All that happened was a home was ruined.
OTOH, I also had a coworker/work-friend who I discovered was homeless for the first few months she was working at the company! She'd been living out of her car for that time, as well as nearly 6 months beforehand. She had a hard fucking time, but she was smart and determined, and climbed back out of homelessness.
Why Housing First Doesn’t Solve What People Primarily Care About
When "homeless" statistics are quoted, they mostly talk about the transitional homeless, like that coworker. These are people who got fucked in life somehow, but are mostly normal. They usually find their way back. They are the people who stay in their cars, or couch-surf for several months. They tend to be homeless for less than 20 months.
These people are important to help! I’m not sure that giving them free houses is the best use of public resources, but I certainly want there to be a safety net. But when people are told that The Homeless Problem can be solved by giving people free homes, they think of the guy in ratty clothes that sleeps in the alley and begs for change on street corners. The Chronically Homeless.
Anyone who implies these people will be helped with free homes is wrong. In fact, they’re making the situation worse.
Making Things Worse
Actually attempting to put Chronically Homeless people into free homes will result in them being back on the streets after some months. Moreover, it will result in the destruction of the homes they were housed in. The cost of housing them isn’t just $X-thousand per month in rent, it’s several tens of thousands in repairs and rehab afterwards. It destroys housing that could have been on the market to fulfill unmet demand for housing. It terrorizes neighbors who are trapped living by people who need DRASTICALLY more help than just a roof and walls.
I think in some cases (many? nearly all?) it's possible to help these people. Again, I present my relative, who with constant parental intervention and daily anti-psychotics, is able to live a mostly-normal life. We can likely greatly improve the lives and functioning of these people if we provide them with medication, personalized daily support, and specialist care, in addition to housing. If we don’t do that, and just put them in housing, we are in fact diverting and destroying resources that could have been used for actual help.
Importantly, the public isn’t blind. They can see that “give these people a home” is not a solution that works. Pushing a “Housing First” policy which does not address what people really worry about will strip public support for homeless programs. We may lose what few programs we have that do help the chronically homeless, as well as those that help the temporarily homeless get back on their feet. It’s the worst of all possible solutions.
It’s also a common failure mode among the progressive left, and has been very destructive to all progressive policies in the US for the last decade. (see again #3 at ACX Highlights post) But that’s a different blog post.
Any public policy must separate the problems of the Chronically Homeless and the Temporarily Homeless. Policy that fixes one will not fix the other. Conflating them will destroy resources, and will lose public trust. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.