Academics, Lawyers, and Bad Theories Sustain the Homeless Crisis

Written by Apartment Management Magazine on . Posted in Blog


Before getting into the meat of this column, I want to make it very clear I have immense respect for academia and the legal profession.  Both disciplines have expanded the breadth of our knowledge and humanity. But like any other profession, they can be bent to meet goals antithetical to their principles. 

By now, most readers will have heard of two important news stories. First, the disastrous testimony of three college presidents from Harvard, MIT, and U Penn before Congress. The other is the Supreme Court’s acceptance of an appeal of the Boise decision. 

When asked a simple question: “Does language advocating the genocide of Jews violate your college’s code of conduct”? all three college presidents gave meandering, philosophical answers to what most Americans regard as a commonsense response: “Yes”. The presidents’ attempts to give nuanced morally neutral answers made them sound spineless and unprincipled.  Granted, the question was intended to score political points and create effective sound bites, but it highlighted what many regard as a divide between the rarified atmosphere of academia and the real world.  What may appear perfectly reasonable in a conference room, reading Descartes or Nietzsche, surrounded by charts and reams of data, has no relation to the lived experiences of most people. 

Likewise, the hyperbolic response from homeless advocacy and legal groups to the Supreme Court’s decision to review the Bosie case shows another disconnect between theory and real world consequences.  Organizations like the ACLU and the Oregon Law Center quickly raised the specter of “criminalizing poverty” in their press releases about the impending case.  However, as an LA Times article mentioned, “In their appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the city [Grants Pass, OR] emphasized the practical problems of homelessness. ‘Across the West,’ they said, ‘hundreds of thousands of people camp in public, their tents and belongings overtaking sidewalks, parks, and trails. Cities want to help those in encampments get the services they need while ensuring that our communities remain safe, but they find themselves hamstrung in responding to public encampments and the drug overdoses, murders, sexual assaults, diseases, and fires that inevitably accompany them.’ ” 

Or, as California state Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman stated more prosaically, “People are dying with their rights on.” Legal advocates’ commitment to defend the rights of the mentally ill and those addicted to drugs in theory leads to thousands of deaths per year in fact. While impassioned advocates pontificate about “personal agency in choosing what type of care to accept”, thousands of lost souls wander the streets with no services and no hope. This stance also ignores the very real fact some people simply don’t want to move from what they consider their homes. 

The gap between theory and reality is evident in the State of California’s official statement on Housing First: it is “an approach to serving people experiencing homelessness that recognizes a homeless person must first be able to access a decent, safe place to live, that does not limit length of stay (permanent housing), before stabilizing, improving health, reducing harmful behaviors, or increasing income. … anyone experiencing homelessness should be connected to a permanent home as quickly as possible, and programs should remove barriers to accessing the housing, like requirements for sobriety or absence of criminal history. It is based on the “hierarchy of need:” people must access basic necessities—like a safe place to live and food to eat—before being able to achieve quality of life or pursue personal goals. Finally, Housing First values choice not only in where to live, but whether to participate in services. For this reason, tenants are not required to participate in services to access or retain housing”. 

In the state’s policy statement, we see both the aspirational nature of Housing First and why it is a failure. Housing First was developed by an academic, Dr. Sam Tsemberis, a faculty member of the Department of Psychiatry at New York University’s School of Medicine, based on his research on the positive outcomes when people were housed before receiving supportive services. In other words, Housing First isn’t based on practical experience, trial and error or incremental change.  It is an academic theory applied to real-world situations. Because of its  superficial appeal—putting someone in housing naturally means they are no longer unhoused—it was quickly adopted as policy throughout the country.  It also appeals to the compassionate dimension of homelessness response, since people are housed regardless of their ability or desire to receive support services, presenting an appearance of equity in housing. The assumption, of course, is that needed support services would be provided (and accepted) once a person is housed. 

And therein lies the fatal flaw in No Barrier Housing First, exposing the gap between academic theory and unpleasant reality.  Allowing people in the grip of untreated mental illness or substance abuse to make vital decisions about their lives is naïve at best and cruel in application.  It is also economically unsustainable, as evidenced by the financial collapse of the Skid Row Housing Trust and the struggles of AHF’s housing program.  Damage in housing facilities caused by people in the throes of psychotic breaks runs into the tens of millions.  

Relying on academic theories wouldn’t be so damaging if they weren’t enthusiastically supported by a cadre of legal defense firms more interested in defending abstract theories than in helping people in need.  Organizations like the ACLU aggressively defend the idea that treatment must be voluntary, even as the number chronically homeless (the group with a high incidence of mental illness and substance abuse) grew by 18 percent from 2022 to 2023, and now comprises about 42 percent of all homeless people. 

Last year, Will Knight with the National Homeless Law Center declared, “All you need to do to be compliant with [the Boise case] is stop using our criminal system as the stick here to solve this problem.” Although that sounds great in theory, it ignores the fact that last least 60 percent of the unhoused refuse shelter or housing offers.  Some people refuse shelter out of fear of being assaulted (a genuine concern given the laggard management provided by many nonprofits), while others balk against the perceived loss of privacy or the requirement to abide by housing rules. In any case, the presence of large tent encampments surrounding shelters is objective evidence that many people prefer to practice self-destructive behaviors while using shelter facilities for food and bathing.  Others refuse shelter because their mental illness has progressed to the point they are incapable of making decisions in their own self-interest. The reality is there must be a coercive element to any shelter or housing program, or cities will never succeed in getting all the unhoused off the streets. 

The fanatical support for No Barrier Housing First violates the scientific method that should be at the core of academic integrity.  The scientific method states a hypothesis, tests it, and reports on how well the hypothesis matches reality.  Science follows the evidence and changes as new facts are discovered.  Consider astronomy: astronomers believed Earth was the center of the universe until Galileo proved otherwise. In the late 20th century, theories on the evolution of the universe were upended by observations from the Hubble telescope; those observations are now being challenged by new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope.  Astronomers are developing new theories to help us understand our origins. 

As we know from history, many scientific discoveries faced entrenched and often violent opposition. Galileo was threatened with excommunication for his theories on the true nature of cosmology.  Darwin was cursed as a heretic for espousing evolution. Critiques of Housing First face the same extreme opposition. Advocates accuse Housing First’s  critics  of being NIMBY’s, racist, elitist, and a host of other epithets. When confronted by the factual proof of failure, they flip the facts and claim critics cherry-pick data to highlight failures and ignore success. 

In reality, it is Housing First’s supporters who cherry pick and spin facts to fit their narrative. Check any homeless agency’s website, and you’ll find smiling, happy people who benefited from the agency’s services,  Shelters and housing units are clean, quiet and supportive. Review the statistics these agencies publish and you get the idea real progress is being made; the Mayor’s office recently claimed 21,000 people have been sheltered or housed, almost half of the city’s 46,000 homeless. The evidence before our eyes tells us otherwise. (This applies to corporate nonprofits that contract with the City or County. Many NPO’s that practice Housing Readiness are far more successful). 

In fact, fewer than 260 people have been permanently housed under Inside Safe at a cost of almost $98 million.  The very term “permanent supportive housing” is an oxymoron. It is not permanent, since people are constantly moving in and out of housing units for a variety of reasons, including the voluntary nature of Housing First, and no agencies can provide an accurate count of how many people obtain and stay in housing long-term.  It is not supportive since the lack of services is lamentably well documented. And it may be called housing only in the crudest term, since many units are spartan, cheaply constructed and isolating. Budgets for homeless intervention agencies have skyrocketed even as homelessness has exponentially increased.  In statistical analysis terms, Housing First advocates use individual benefits as evidence of community-wide success. A given program or project may benefit a certain number of individuals; those individual success stories are then used to “prove” the program is successful at the community level. Selectively analyzing data is the same logic Galileo’s opponents used to prove the Earth remained at the center of the universe.  

Proponents of an Earth-centric universe were forced to propose ever-more far-fetched theories to explain observable facts, such as planets that “reversed their orbits” in relation to Earth, rather than orbiting the sun at different speeds. Anyone who believed the Earth orbited the sun was a heretic for threatening the Church’s authority. Housing First advocates use the same tactics. Critics “hate the homeless” and cite “biased statistics”.  Residents who oppose poorly managed shelters devoid of support services become NIMBY’s. No criticism of Housing First, regardless of how well-documented, can be tolerated because admitting the smallest failure is akin to denying God set the universe in motion with Earth as its center, threatening the assumptions and beliefs of a multibillion dollar homeless intervention system. 

Just as false beliefs kept medieval civilization trapped in ignorance, devotion to Housing First keeps thousands trapped in camps and on the streets. The impending Supreme Court decision on Bosie represents an existential threat to the current model of Housing First and its free flowing revenue stream. If cities are allowed to use more balanced models and homelessness stops its steep ascent, then faith in the pseudoscience of Housing First may very well collapse. That would benefit everyone, from taxpayers to the homeless themselves.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)