Address Mental Illness, Substance Abuse to Combat Homelessness, New Report Says 

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The Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth and Poverty released a report Wednesday aimed at helping lawmakers change government policies on homelessness, which the institute considers ill-advised.

The Seattle-based nonprofit’s report, “How Congress Can Reform Government’s Misguided Homelessness Policies,” focuses on the underlying causes of homelessness; specifically, mental illness and substance abuse.

The solution to homelessness must involve “getting therapy and treatment, and having requirements and programs,” said Robert Marbut Jr., the project coordinator and a former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, at a Wednesday luncheon in Washington.

Left-wing activists claim lack of available housing is the primary problem, Marbut noted. But he and Discovery Institute board Chairman Bruce Chapman contend that President Barack Obama’s Housing First program, which the federal government adopted in 2013, has become a “housing only” solution in practice.

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Advocates of “housing first” predicted that federal housing vouchers would end homelessness in 10 years, by 2023. Department of Housing and Urban Development numbers show homelessness has, in fact, skyrocketed in recent years. The total number of individuals experiencing homelessness in America is estimated as approaching 1.2 million.

The authors of the Discovery report argue that Housing First advocates’ prediction failed because of the “flawed assumptions about the nature of the crisis, especially the prevalence of untreated mental illness and drug use disorders within the homelessness community.”

Marbut said that California is the perfect case study of the effects of Housing First. “The California Legislature under [then-Gov.] Jerry Brown chose to say that all of their money has to follow Housing First,” he explained.  Not only was California already receiving untold millions of dollars in federal money for housing programs, the California Legislature also decided to allocate state funds to Housing First programs in 2016.

“There’s no better experiment,” said Marbut. “If Housing First was the right policy, if just giving away vouchers was right, California should have the lowest homelessness rate ever in America’s history.”

The report found unsheltered street-level homelessness in California actually rose more than 47% from 2015 to 2019. “Sometimes the policy is what causes the problem,” said Marbut.

The report cites a California Policy Lab study that surveyed 64,000 people experiencing homelessness. Some 78% of those people self-reported to have a severe mental illness—and 50% of those people said that was the cause of their homelessness.

Some 75% self-reported that they struggled with addiction, and 51% said they lost their housing because of their addiction.

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