Skip to main content

Our Policies to Address Homelessness Are Failing

National Review

December 21, 2023

Official data released last Friday show that 2023 was the worst year ever recorded for homelessness, and it’s not even close. The 12 percent rise in homelessness quadrupled the previous record for a single-year increase. Our homeless population is now the largest it has ever been. Policy-makers must wake up to this national crisis. Our current approach is broken, and the problem will get worse if we don’t correct course.
The numbers are devastating. Sheltered homelessness rose by a whopping 14 percent since last year and by 22 percent over the last two years. Before then, the number of people in shelters had never increased by more than 4 percent in a single year (which happened 14 years ago). Unsheltered homelessness rose by a record 10 percent in the past year and by almost 50 percent since 2015. There are more people on the street today than ever before.

The seriousness of the problem is lost on the Biden administration, which strangely claimed that the 12 percent rise in homelessness in 2023 was a continuation of the 2016–20 trend. The fact is that homelessness grew by an average of just 1 percent each year during that period. Rather than acknowledge the largest single-year increase in homelessness, the administration touted the largest single-year “investment” in assistance from the expired American Rescue Plan. The homelessness crisis won’t be solved by sticking our head in the sand, denying the scale of the problem, and restating old talking points.
The problem is likely to get worse. The shelter systems in cities such as New York and Chicago are increasingly stressed by migrants seeking asylum. Since January, when the 2023 homelessness counts were conducted, the homeless population in shelters in New York City has grown by more than 18,000. Two months ago, New York mayor Eric Adams said the city was out of room and people would soon be forced onto the streets.

Unsheltered homelessness, meanwhile, has now grown for seven straight years, though never by as much as it did in 2023. West Coast states in particular have worsened the unsheltered-homelessness problem through their failure to remove encampments from public areas and get mentally-ill individuals off the streets. California is now “home” to approximately half of all unsheltered homeless people in the country, with Washington and Oregon taking third and fourth place. Still, the problem is worsening almost everywhere, as 42 states registered an increase in unsheltered homelessness in 2023.

Our current approach to homelessness is clearly not working. The federal government has increasingly directed its resources toward placing individuals in permanent housing. While that solves the problem for the people who get housed, it does nothing for the record number of people entering homelessness. Nor does it help the highly vulnerable among them who are unwilling to accept help. The worst part is that focusing so heavily on expensive permanent housing diverts funds from shorter-term solutions that can get people indoors and allow them to address their underlying problems.

We need a smarter approach that focuses on preventing homelessness whenever possible, offering temporary but effective assistance to those who fall through the cracks, and moving people off the street. That requires a substantial boost in funding for homelessness prevention and temporary rental assistance. It also means investing in a shelter system that makes beds available to people and directs them toward mental-health or substance-abuse treatment.

The scale of the problem means that we can no longer solve it solely by shifting resources around within the homelessness system. Resources should be reallocated from ineffective housing programs that don’t help the families most in need. For example, the low-income-housing tax credit does little to increase the supply of housing and ultimately pads the pockets of developers rather than reduce market rents. Housing-choice vouchers unfairly provide permanent assistance to a lucky few rather than offer temporary assistance to families in danger of losing their home.

That’s not to say we should lose sight of the long-run solutions to homelessness. Increasing the supply of housing would make renting more affordable and reduce entries into homelessness in the first place. Tackling the mental-health and drug problems would help keep vulnerable people off the street. But we can’t wait. We should treat the homelessness crisis with the immediate solutions it requires.

The Biden administration got one thing right in its reaction to the dire new data. It called homelessness a policy choice. But effective policy does not happen by hiding from our problems. Policy-makers of both parties and all levels of government should acknowledge the homelessness crisis and treat it with the urgency it warrants.