The Housing Barrier to Addressing Homelessness

Alex Smith
7 min readJan 4, 2024
Photo by ZACHARY STAINES on Unsplash

Now…

If you told someone in the United States that giving a homeless person a house would solve their homelessness, you would be met with some version of “no shit.

However, if you were instead to say that the ONLY way to even begin to address homelessness across identities was to give every homeless person a house with limited qualifications, you would be met with a slurry of suspicion, lukewarm agreement, and a healthy dash of “But that would/could never happen and there is no way I’m paying for it.”

And yet, this is the reality of this incredibly complex, and yet simply solvable problem. I will do my best to highlight how the many barriers that a lack of housing presents, and that make housing-first necessary to solve homelessness in the United States, while very briefly presenting ways that it’s a superior solution to others.

Housing as Shelter

First and foremost, living without a house within the United States is INCREDIBLY unsustainable. Whether it is the 39/50 states that’s minimum average temperature is below freezing, the fact that 60% of land is privately owned and therefore is often illegal to enter without express permission, or the fact that camping or residing anywhere often has an exorbitant fee associated with it (with the exception of the about 12.5% of BLM land where you may camp for up to 14 days unless posted otherwise).

Now, housing is incredibly important for a variety of reasons I will be getting into, but one that cannot be understated is the fact that one could die if exposed to the elements without proper shelter. Given the estimated 180,000 shelter bed shortage in the U.S. as a whole, it is no mystery then that California counts for 100,000 of those beds in shortage given it’s mediterranean climate (so no freezing to death), commitments to addressing homelessness, and ready availability of free food (through qualifying for it’s CalFresh program….I might be a little bit biased) making it a target for inter-state immigration.

Housing as Food

Now, where can someone find free food that is fairly clean and relatively substantial? Urban areas, ironically, due to the fact that only 2% of American Farmland is dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables, the rest being commodity crops/meat. A grocery store is then the place one would readily find any significant source of nutrition. As a result, many people facing homelessness must live in or directly around urban areas, so that they are able to eat regularly.

Unfortunately, many states and municipalities have laws against people sleeping in their cars, sitting/lying in certain areas, panhandling, or even being outside and looking homeless (26 states have Stop and ID laws, and many require one to provide an address if detained). This makes it very difficult and anxiety producing for someone who is homeless to live near food or even leave to go and get food for fear of fine/arrest/or to come back without food at all.

Now, if one has gotten money for food and paid for it, they often have to find a way to prepare it, as most foodstuffs one can buy cheap/in bulk at a grocery store require some degree of preparation. Given that it is illegal in most municipalities to have a fire without a permit, and regionally/seasonally restricted on much BLM land, it is then very difficult to prepare, or even store bulk foods/dry goods without housing.

Housing as Security

One of the barriers intrinsic to homelessness that often goes unsaid, even in spaces where housing barriers are talked about regularly, is lack of security of oneself or belongings without a house. Often, folks who face homelessness do not have access to recourse if something is stolen from them, as letting the police know where they are camped or their identity is risky in many localities. Further, the risks of being fined for camping/littering, or even arrested for violating local ordinances by bringing attention to themselves or their encampments is a very real threat. I have personally seen a town-in-California’s police use bulldozers to run over people’s tents camped away from metro areas and possessions that was stopped only by an empathetic judge.

Because of this lack of justice/recourse many folks facing homelessness may resort to their own means of justice amongst themselves which further expose them further to the criminal-justice system. The threat of losing one's belongings then becomes an ever-present threat, even when sleeping. This is one of the significant contributing reasons that folks facing homelessness will keep dogs with them (even while struggling to support themselves).

The most significant documents one can lose/have stolen, is all forms of one’s identification. For those facing homelessness this is doubly so. Given that some form of identification is used to prove citizenship even, and most importantly for those in such a vulnerable people, is the only way to access federal or state benefits. A form of identification becomes one’s lifeline to any form of benefits, and without access to some form of government provided I.D. it can become effectively impossible in some states to renew one’s birth certificate/I.D./Drivers License or get replacements.

This impossibility is due to verification becoming impossible in most states without at-least some form of document proving identity, not even getting into the fact that most require some form of mailing address. In many of these states that require at least one document for a replacement, the only way to effectively get a replacement I.D. without any documentation is to be incarcerated. This of course has its own consequences associated with it that I will have to explore in another article entirely. The security of these documents becomes one’s tether to any form of state provided food, security, or healthcare.

Housing as Employment

While “They should just get a job” is something I hear less and less these days it is something I would feel remiss if I didn’t address. Especially in this day and age, when getting a job oftentimes requires one put down a home address for their application (and what a barrier that poses), and also 99% of the time you are required to fill out an online application. Thankfully, within the United States public library system there is free computer and internet access in 98.9% of public libraries according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and so is not impossible, but there may be timing barriers posed by library hours which can be difficult to navigate.

However, ability to access applications is probably the smallest of the barriers systemic to this process. One’s lack of experience, education/recent education, and significant gaps in their resume are absolutely barriers to finding a job for anyone, additionally there can be significant stigma attached to someone using “I was homeless” as a reason. The assumptions that must be made, whether consciously or unconsciously, in the mind of a recruiter/hiring authority I do not need to explain further, as the assumptions made are incredibly entrenched within our cultural expectations. However if one meets the rare recruiter without bias or has controlled for this bias, it does not guarantee they will get the job. These additional barriers are a large part of why even if one “makes it” while facing such a multi-pronged issue like homelessness doesn’t remotely guarantee one’s escape from it.

If one makes it through the application process and lands an interview, the next barrier then becomes “presentablility” and “professionalism” for their interview. For many, the isolation of being unhoused as well as the stigma associated with it can make one’s social/professional skills “rusty” at best, and absolutely offensive to a hiring authority at worst. Beyond this, showers, clean professional clothing, haircuts, grooming supplies, and transportation to an interview or free quality internet in a quiet enough space for a virtual interview is incredibly difficult to outright impossible to obtain without assistance of some kind. This must also line up with the time of the interview, which, if you do not have a watch or phone, will be incredibly difficult to track reliably.

After one has gotten a job, after surpassing all of these barriers then becomes an even greater challenge: maintaining access to all of the above. Reliable time-keeping, professional and clean workwear (times 5 most likely), reliable transportation to and from work, some form of reliable internet connection to access HR/payroll documentation, and a bank account to deposit your payroll into (which of course requires a government ID to open see Housing as Security). Then, after doing all of this long enough and being paid enough, they can afford a security deposit and first months rent (although obtaining housing is a whole other barrier entirely with the amount of credit/background checks required).

Conclusion

Ultimately, housing-first solutions are the only effective method of addressing homelessness as a systemic and enduring problem. It is not only effective as it positively addresses all of the challenges listed above in a holistic way, but also proves to be more effective than any other method. Proven by housing stability outcomes with differences of over 40% compared to treatment-first methods (which also eventually rehouse).

Housing-First also proves to be more cost-effective, according to the same research paper (linked above) by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, than treatment-first approaches “by shortening stays in hospitals, residential substance abuse programs, nursing homes, and prisons.” Housing first has also been more effective than any other model at addressing those facing homelessness in intersecting circumstances (such as having HIV and being a Veteran with mental health challenges for example).

All of this to say that even though it is theoretically possible to break down these barriers by oneself without any housing assistance and liberate oneself from this incredibly difficult experience, it is almost impossible. The factors working against any one person in the United States are too many to list in a single article (trust me, there are many many more I could have); meanwhile the circumstances those who face homelessness or have, even before their entrapmentment, were almost certainly dire to begin with.

--

--

Alex Smith

Your not-so-average early twenties cishet white male activist with a huge heart and a penchant for dismantling societal institutions :)