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Homes for the homeless: a smart investment in dignity

Despite a recent rise in poverty, homelessness is down. One reason? Providing a residence for the homeless creates enough self-respect for them to deal with underlying issues.

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Al Horne looks up at the rain falling on homeless people waiting in line to receive a Christmas meal by The Extended Aftercare Alumni volunteers on Christmas morning in downtown Houston. Volunteers distributed a holiday meal, clothes, and hygiene gift packages on Christmas morning in a tradition started to give people new to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction an opportunity to be of service.

Mayra Beltran/Houston Chronicle/AP Photo

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Two decades ago, a simple idea was floated in the United States: Give homeless people a home rather than temporary shelter and their sense of personal dignity will rise, opening the way for them to solve their problems. 

The idea finally spread nationwide under President George W. Bush and has been enhanced by President Obama. This has led to an amazing result: Despite the drop in personal income and a rise in poverty caused by the 2007-09 recession, homelessness has dropped in recent years, according to new data.

The reasons now seem obvious. People who aren’t living on the streets or in temporary settings have better stability to deal with mental, drug, or family problems that often go hand in hand with homelessness. They don’t cycle in and out of hospitals, mental-health facilities, jails, courts, or shelters at great expense to taxpayers. They are not socially stigmatized by their living conditions. A home helps center them.

For charities and government, the cost savings of this “housing first” strategy have been a significant incentive to keep funding it. In 2010, the Obama administration even began to believe it could completely whip homelessness. It set a goal to end “chronic” homelessness by 2015 (or not have any individuals who have been homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years). It set the same goal for homeless veterans. But it set a less ambitious date of 2020 to end homelessness for families, youth, and children.

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