The Wrong Way to Fight Homelessness

There are better ways to help.

Photographer: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to America's homeless, there is not enough government help to go around. This grim truth has led to a bipartisan congressional proposal for a new strategy -- but the approach wouldn’t do anything to help the homeless, and it would do more harm than good.

Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat, and Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, have proposed a bill that would greatly expand the federal government's definition of "homeless." Merely redefining a problem, however, is an empty gesture unless it is accompanied by a concrete effort to address it.

The bill would replace the definition of homelessness used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- which is used to allocate federal funding for programs for the homeless -- with the one that is used by the Department of Education. The former consists of only those sleeping on the street or in shelters, who are counted during a "point in time" survey every January; the latter includes those who are temporarily living in motels or under other people's roofs.

This would increase the number of people eligible for additional housing assistance under HUD’s homelessness prevention program, called Continuum of Care, by more than 3 million, including more than 1 million children. But because the bill comes with no additional money, it could make it harder for those most in need of assistance to get it.

It's the law of supply and demand: If supply (federal dollars) remains constant but demand (the number of homeless) increases, then either fewer people will get assistance, as a percentage of the overall population of homeless, or the same number of homeless will get less assistance. From a practical standpoint, because they would be competing (and waiting in line) with more people for the same resources, the truly homeless would be worse off.

Supporters of the bill apparently believe that the existence of more homeless people will make it easier to argue for more federal funding to help homeless people. Maybe they are even right. In the meantime, however, the worst of the homeless could be forced to suffer even more than they do now.

The government can and should do more to help Americans with no place to call home. It can increase funding for housing assistance programs and public housing, which has been cut in recent years. It could also spend its efforts and resources more efficiently -- for example, by merging a program for homeless teens run by the Department of Health and Human Services into HUD. 

Passing this bill, however, would merely allow both parties to pat themselves on the back for doing something about homelessness. Any official definition will inevitably be arbitrary. Better for members of Congress to focus on programs that reduce homelessness than on a debate about the meaning of the term itself.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.