Why are millions of people living on the streets of the wealthiest nation on Earth?
That is the question that Gregg Colburn, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, along with data scientist and policy analyst Clayton Page Aldern, tried to discover in their book, Homelessness Is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns, published in March by the University of California Press.
Colburn was the guest at an online policy forum held by State Treasurer Michael Pieciak on July 24.
The seminar was attended by approximately 280 people from around the state as well as representatives from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, Pathways Vermont, Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, and Recovery Vermont.
Pieciak began the 90-minute seminar by pointing out that homelessness is one of the most important - and most intransigent - problems facing Vermont today.
"About six months ago, when I came into the office of treasurer, we had identified the shortage of housing as our number one economic issue," he said. "We expanded our local investment program to $85 million of monies that were available for economic development and job creation. And we prioritized housing as the number one thing that could do both of those items - expand economic development and grow jobs."
At the same time, the shortage of housing is not only an economic issue, Pieciak said.
"It clearly is exacerbating social issues that we're experiencing in our state," he said - in "a whole variety of ways," like homelessness, mental illness, and substance use disorder.
Pieciak first heard Colburn speak on public radio while he was driving. He immediately bought the book.
"Within a few minutes, I said, 'We need to make sure we can get Professor Colburn to Vermont so he can share his research and his data with us,'" Pieciak said. "Everything that he talked about in his book really was so applicable to the challenges that we're facing here in Vermont."
The fundamental question that Colburn and Aldern pose in their book is why the rate of homelessness varies so widely throughout the United States.
Their conclusion is in the book title.
"Tight housing markets, where housing is expensive and where it's scarce, produce high rates of homelessness," Colburn said. "And I joke that no one's gonna give us a Nobel Prize for this. This is not groundbreaking. We've known this for 25 years in the United States. But for whatever reason, we have been really reluctant to embrace this explanation."
Colburn shot down the many explanations people give for other people's homelessness.
First, he said, people like to blame individual problems. Drug addiction and mental illness are almost always the first things mentioned.
"There's some variation in rates of mental illness and drug use throughout the United States," Colburn said. "But it bears no relationship whatsoever to rates of homelessness. It's basically just a flatline. There are people using drugs and people who are mentally ill in every jurisdiction around the nation."
Therefore, he continued, "the high rates of homelessness in Seattle, Washington, Oregon, and California are not a function of more people who are experiencing mental illness and more people who are addicted."
Experiencing racism, struggling with joblessness, running from a violent home life, moving on from divorce, wearing out the couch surfing welcome, or fighting with a roommate - all are other reasons on which homelessness gets blamed.
"Each of these circumstances certainly lead to someone experiencing homelessness," Colburn said. "But think about this at a more structural level."
In terms of the situation writ large, it "turns out it's not true," he said. "It's not an accurate explanation."
Often, people say that having a generous social service environment - free meals, shelters, etc. - draws homeless people from other communities.
Wrong, Colburn said.
"We don't find any evidence of a mobility argument, despite the fact that we hear this over and over and over and over," he said.
"I've never been in a community that doesn't believe that they're a magnet for homelessness," Colburn continued.
"We don't see any evidence that people are moving to jurisdictions based on generous benefits," he said. "We don't see people congregating in places like San Francisco saying, 'Boy, Iowa looks pretty nice. Let's go to Iowa.'"
Why aren't people moving to Iowa? Because moving is difficult in the best of circumstances.
"If you're at the end of your rope, you have no resources, and you don't have a job, are you really going to move?" Colburn asked. "We don't see evidence of that."
He added that California just came up with a huge study that demonstrated that 90% of their homeless population are people from California, and 75% of the people "were actually in the exact same county that they had been when they were previously housed."
Colburn used the analogy of a game of musical chairs in which one of the players is on crutches. As the number of chairs decreases, the loser is likely going to be the one with the disability.
The answer is to start with enough chairs, he said.
"When we have a scarcity of chairs, what happens is it accentuates vulnerability," Colburn said. "And this is exactly what's happening in many jurisdictions around the nation, including the state of Vermont."
When there's insufficient housing or when housing is difficult to access, "the people who are most likely to lose that game - the need for housing - are people who are vulnerable," he said.
"And these individual vulnerabilities that get a lot of time and attention are really just the sorting mechanism," Colburn said. "That's the mechanism by which we identify the people who are most likely to lose the game when we don't have enough housing."
What accounts for the variation?
To prove his point, Colburn cited affluent cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, which have approximately five times the per capita homelessness of cities like Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago.
"There's huge variation," Colburn said. "We're not talking about 20% or 30%. It's a massive, massive variation."
When rates of poverty are high, homelessness tends to be low - "which is very confusing, because poverty causes homelessness," he said. "Yet some of the highest poverty places in the country, like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, etc., have relatively low rates of homelessness. So homelessness thrives amidst affluence. It doesn't thrive in poverty, which is a head scratcher."
Race is not a sufficient explanation for these widely divergent rates of homelessness.
"Black, brown, and indigenous people are three to four times over-represented in the homeless population," Colburn said. "What's interesting is that the demographic composition of the community doesn't explain rates of homelessness. Chicago, for example, has a much higher Black population than does Seattle, yet has much lower rates of homelessness."
It is racism, rather than race, that accounts for higher rates of homelessness, he said.
"Systemic discrimination across multiple systems, education, housing, criminal justice, etc., produce these disproportionate outcomes, and those exist in all jurisdictions around the United States," Colburn said.
And don't go blaming Mother Nature, either.
"People will say, 'Well, of course, San Diego and L.A. have high rates of homelessness because their weather is very moderate,'" Colburn said. "And that's true. It's much more pleasant there in January than it is in Chicago. But the point is, there's no relationship whatsoever."
Each January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counts the homeless population and rates of homelessness in the Point-in-Time Count, a census of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness.
"The narrative fits when you think about L.A. and Chicago, but then you ignore Boston and New York, which are unpleasant in January and have very high rates of homelessness. And then there are places like Miami and Dallas and San Antonio which have relatively low rates and are warm in January."
Should you blame politics?
"People frequently blame Democrats for homelessness, because homelessness tends to be high in Democratic cities," Colburn said.
That, he said, is a true statement - but that's because Democrats overwhelmingly run cities in United States.
"Miami and San Diego briefly had Republican mayors, and Michael Bloomberg, when he was mayor of New York, was an independent. But otherwise, it's Democrats," Colburn said.
"Democrats certainly aren't blameless in this - I'm not suggesting that they are," he continued. "But if we want to blame Democrats, we need to be intellectually honest and say, 'Well, then why haven't Democrats produced a huge homelessness crisis in Chicago and Cleveland?' Democrats have been running those cities for longer than I've been alive."
'Housing market conditions really, really matter'
Colburn's key answer to why some places - Vermont and California are at the top of the list - have more homelessness than others is the lack of affordable housing stock.
Homelessness tends to be high when rents are high or when vacancy rates are low.
"And when people push back on this for me, I'll just say, 'Give me a city in United States that has really high rents and low vacancies that doesn't have a problem with homelessness,'" Colburn said. "And then I get a blank stare. And I'll say, 'I'll save you the effort here. There isn't one.'"
Put another way: "There's not a place with 10% vacancy and $800 rents that has a massive problem with homelessness," he said. "Why? Because housing is affordable and accessible. If you are a community, if you're a state that is seeing very low vacancy rates and rents that are continuing to incline, it should not surprise you if you have a growing problem of homelessness."
The situation is only worsening, Colburn warned.
"I've been in the South a lot, in booming cities like Raleigh, Orlando, Charlotte, and Louisville," he said. "These are places that generally have not had huge problems with homelessness."
But over the past two decades people have been moving to the Sunbelt, and in those cities, "their vacancy rates are going down, rents are going up, and they're starting to see a problem."
And in Vermont?
"Vermont blew me away," Colburn said. "It should not be a surprise as to why you have the second-highest per capita rate of homelessness on a statewide basis in the United States, next to California. Housing market conditions really, really matter."
It will take real effort to change the picture in Vermont, he said.
"The reality is, there are people who are vulnerable in every state in the nation," Colburn said. "But if you are vulnerable in a state with a 2.4% vacancy rate, there's nowhere to go. If your car breaks down, if you've missed a job interview, if you lose your job - whatever happens - there is very, very little margin for error. And I think that's exactly why Vermont is struggling with this crisis."
Vermont lacks "supply elasticity," Colburn said. It is difficult to build new housing stock here.
"Topography has a big impact on that - mountains and water and the regulatory environment," Colburn said. "What we have to do as a nation, as states, as local jurisdictions, is to have capital investments to construct housing.
"We need more housing that's more affordable for people who need it. And otherwise, if we continue to just fund these crisis responses, we will not stop the flow of people into the crisis of homelessness, and these crisis response systems are bursting at the seams."
Pieciak asked Colburn what he says to people who say that constructing new housing is expensive.
"You know what is also really expensive?" Colburn said. "Untreated homelessness."
The reason why it's sometimes hard to understand the huge costs of homelessness, he said, "is because they're distributed through a variety of different systems. You could think about the emergency health system, or about [emergency] rooms that are that are providing basic health coverage to people experiencing homelessness. Think about streets and sanitation, public health, libraries, police and fire."
The point is that "all of these systems have huge costs associated with homelessness," Colburn said. "When you add them up - and a variety of research has done this - what we see is that homelessness is hugely expensive."
This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.