The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, Campion Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

There’s a big problem when it comes to fixing homelessness: The research-backed solution is not always the one the public agrees with.

Gregg Colburn realized this shortly after moving to Seattle in 2017 to take a job as assistant professor of real estate at the University of Washington. Most people either see homelessness as an entirely individual problem, or a structural problem with the housing market or income inequality. 

Homeless people will also tell you varying reasons for what caused their homelessness loss of employment, drugs and alcohol, and mental health place high on past surveys. Housing issues tend to fall lower on the list of answers, and are complicated: people say eviction, rising rent, domestic violence, or a family member kicking them out.

But when Colburn compared cities with high and low numbers of homelessness based on poverty, drug use and mental health treatment factors, there was a clear answer that housing plays an outsize role in homelessness — and most academics have agreed on it for a while. It just hasn’t been embraced by the general public yet.

So Colburn teamed up with Clayton Page Aldern, a data journalist who used to evaluate homelessness programs for Pierce County government, to write a peer-reviewed but plainly written guide in hopes that more people will embrace solutions that work to fix the problem. The result: “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem,” a book published this month by University of California Press.

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“Housing market conditions explain why high-poverty cities like Detroit and Cleveland have low rates of homelessness,” Colburn and Aldern write. “Housing market conditions also explain why some growing cities, like Charlotte, North Carolina, are not characterized by the levels of homelessness that coastal boomtowns like Boston, Seattle, Portland,
and San Francisco are. … High rental costs and low vacancy rates create a challenging market for many residents in a city, and those challenges are compounded for people with low incomes and/or physical or mental health concerns.”

The Seattle Times sat down with Colburn and Aldern to discuss the book. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You lay out a prescription, a fix for homelessness, in this book. Can you describe it?

Gregg Colburn: We need a lot more housing of all varieties. And that means we need more market rate housing, we need more middle income housing, we need more affordable housing, and we need more supportive housing for people with particular needs. And investments at all of those levels, both from public and private sources will, in my opinion, make a substantial difference in the crisis of homelessness.

A metaphor in the book describes a game of musical chairs where one of the people, named Mike, is on crutches, and doesn’t get a chair when the music stops. You write that “the fundamental cause of Mike’s chairlessness was a lack of chairs, not his ankle injury. The rules of the game meant that someone had to lose.”

Clayton Page Aldern: It’s obvious from an analogy like that that we’re also hinting at a supply problem. Were it not for the absence of a chair, Mike would have found a seat. And that should also pose an implicit question: Why is there a chair missing in the first place? And what would it take to bring another chair into that circle? Why can’t we change the rules of the game?

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When many people see folks on the street struggling with mental illnesses, or using drugs, or just in distress, their first thought is not “if only the rent were cheaper.” It’s often “this person needs treatment and serious support.” If I’m one of those people with those doubts, what would you say to me?

Colburn: In West Coast cities, the observed problem of homelessness does not accurately reflect the entire problem. We are observing chronic unsheltered homelessness on our streets. And depending on the data source that you look at, that represents maybe 10 to 30% of the total homeless population.

We could cure every case of substance use disorders and mental illness in Seattle among the unsheltered population, and we would still have one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness in the country. It might be less visible, and that might make us as a community feel better. But the reality is, we would still have a very, very large population of people experiencing homelessness. 

Aldern: It’s not immediately clear to me as an observer whether or not somebody with a given condition lost their housing with that condition, or came to it upon losing their housing. Living on the street for a year can be pretty traumatic. There’s a lot of academic research out there that suggests these conditions [such as drug use and mental illnesses] don’t exclusively cause homelessness per se as much as they are the results thereof.

Colburn: People say to me, “if Housing First [the idea that you should house someone before treatment] works, why do we still have the problem that we do with chronic unsheltered homelessness in Seattle?’ And my answer is, “because Housing First needs a unit for it to work.” The scarcity of units does undermine our community’s ability to respond to chronic unsheltered homelessness.

To someone who says, “Will housing fix all of this? Or will there still be people on the street?,” we say that Seattle has five times the homelessness of Chicago. But there’s still homelessness, and there are people panhandling in Chicago. And so we aren’t suggesting that accommodating housing markets will end all homelessness. What we’re saying is, it doesn’t need to be five times what Chicago is.

Homelessness expert Dennis Culhane, whom you quote in the book, recently told me that the homelessness provider community was never designed to solve homelessness; they were supposed to make sure people didn’t freeze outside and maybe give them a meal. And over the years, we realized that this approach is itself part of the problem. I wonder if you would encourage local policymakers to focus less on funding the crisis system, and much more on funding housing?

Colburn: That is the central tension we face in our region. One of the reasons why it’s really hard to be a City Council member, or the mayor or the county exec right now, is those people are having to confront this tension. And we’ve talked to a lot of people in preparing this book, people who study homelessness, and when we pose that question, everyone said, “it’s not a fair question, because in a sense, we have to do both.” And will that be costly? Yes, it will.