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Rethinking Homelessness In Waco

Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about homelessness, and the stories we tell one another about the causes and consequences of the problem. For a long time, I believed in many of the narratives that we commonly hear about homelessness, such as the belief that homelessness is primarily an issue of mental health and drug and alcohol abuse. This is easy to believe, and it makes a lot of sense on the surface. Many of the people experiencing homelessness that we encounter are struggling with one or more of these challenges.


A few weeks ago, I read a book by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern called Homeless is a Housing Problem. This book really challenged these common assumptions. Colburn and Aldern convincingly dispel the common beliefs that link homelessness to some form of individual pathology. They show, for example, that areas with higher rates of drug use are not areas with higher rates of homelessness. Likewise, there is no relationship between homelessness and mental health. Regions and cities which have a higher rate of people struggling with mental health problems are not areas with higher rates of homelessness.

In fact, the factors that have the largest impact on homelessness, according to their analysis, are factors related to the housing market. As the supply of affordable housing declines, the rental vacancy rates go down, and the cost of rent goes up. This very simple set of factors explains most of the homelessness rates that we see in communities across our nation, from areas with large homeless populations such as Seattle and San Francisco to areas with smaller homeless populations such as Detroit and Cleveland. Areas with relatively low rates of homelessness are those which can provide affordable housing solutions to residents.


Like all communities, we need to have a robust set of services dedicated to helping people experiencing homelessness, from emergency shelters and day shelters to rapid re-housing and transitional housing. But a true community-wide strategy for ending homelessness in the Heart of Texas must also include a focus on the forces that lead people into homelessness. We need strategies not simply to help people experiencing homelessness, but also to keep people from ever becoming homeless in the first place.


Last April, the City of Waco asked Prosper Waco to study the structure of our system of homelessness services and provide recommendations on an improved system. We recently completed phase 1 of that research, a study of our system’s structure, and are now beginning phase 2, which will compare resources and services offered by our system to other comparable communities and identify best practices our community could consider as we strive to better serve those experiencing homelessness.

For the next few months, I’ll be writing about homelessness in these monthly newsletters. I’m hoping to give you all a snapshot of the homelessness problem in our city, and some insight into some of the trends and challenges that we’ve recently seen. My hope is that we can begin to see the problem of homelessness in our community not simply as a problem of people with drug addiction, or people with mental health problems, or people down on their luck – though surely those factors are also real. However, there are also macro-level issues at work, and only systems-level change will be able to address those. My hope is that we can begin to see homelessness as a structural problem that requires structural solutions—solutions that can only be found as we continue to work together—across sectors, demographics, and industries—as a community.


 









Jeremy Rhodes

Sr. Director of Data & Research

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