While numerous risk factors and contingencies shape homelessness only one thing is common in each case: a lack of stable housing. Throughout most of Europe, homelessness is on the rise even in the presence of massive welfare states. In the UK, it has risen 7% over the last year. In Germany, it has risen 35% over the last two years, and in France, homelessness has risen 50% over the same time period. Exacerbated by the migrant crisis, homelessness has risen in all but one EU country. Finland has managed to reduce their homeless population by 35% over the past decade and completely eliminate unsheltered homelessness by unconditionally providing stable housing to homeless individuals before tackling any of the mental health or substance abuse problems they may have. The Housing First approach has not only been found to be more effective at reducing homelessness than approaches that prioritize treatment of underlying disorders or, alternatively, doing nothing, it has also been found to be more cost effective. Cities can either pay for homelessness on the front end or the back end and the latter is much more expensive. For instance, in Los Angeles County, criminalization and hospitalization costs about $5,100 more per homeless person and $10,800 more per chronically homeless person compared to those with stable housing. For chronically homeless persons, healthcare costs can be four to five times higher than the non-homeless population while criminal justice costs can be as much as seven to nine times higher. In Washington State, incarcerating an individual can average anywhere between $2,364 to $4,272 per month or $28,370 to $51,264 annually. In contrast, permanent supportive housing and affordable housing is much cheaper, coming in between $6,180 and $5,567 per unit annually.
The Problem with City Shelters
While emergency shelters are usually the go to solution for alleviating homelessness they do not provide stable housing needed to prevent chronic homelessness and exemplify the tragedy of the commons problem. The New York City shelter system, which accommodates 95% of the homeless population there, furnishes a case study in how overcrowded shelters can quickly fall into disrepair and become practical bio-hazards. An investigation conducted by a homeless advocacy group found that shelters often become contaminated with mold and infested with rats and insects. Shelter bathrooms have routine sanitary problems with mold and plumbing problems with clogged toilets and showers that do not work. Shelter staff exacerbate these problems by providing insufficient portions of food and failing to provide laundry services, leaving many residents to wear dirty clothes.
Housing solution for Single Homeless Persons: Tiny House Villages
Roughly two-thirds of the national homeless population is single people. A unique housing solution that many cities have begun to experiment with is allowing the construction of tiny house villages. Local non-profit organizations, churches and community volunteers in Seattle have built some 250 tiny houses, within 8 tiny house villages, on a combination of public and private land. The housing units measure between 100 and 120 square feet, the size of a small bedroom, and cost between $2,200 and $2,500 to produce, which is funded through donations and the Low Income Housing Institute, a local non-profit organization. Cities such as Austin, Denver, and Portland have begun to conduct similar experiments in tiny house production. Most residents of tiny house villages are gainfully employed and, unlike city shelters, these self-governing communities provide homeless persons with independence, reduce their reliance on social services and their burden on the criminal justice system, and most importantly allow them to escape homelessness. Municipal governments could help establish tiny house villages through land banking. Public land as well as vacant and abandoned lots could be rezoned and appropriated to build villages, ideally by private charities and non-profit organizations, while the municipality provides all of the necessary utilities.