The ultimate solution to the problem of sheltering the homeless is for the federal government to fund the construction of more affordable housing, said Sam Tsemberis, founder of an innovative program for the indigent living on the streets of New York City.
Tsemberis, who spoke to a packed audience of students, faculty and alumni as part of a speaker series at Fordham University Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice and Dispute Resolution on April 12, said that through the 1970s the federal government was subsidizing the building of about 350,000 affordable housing units a year, but has since cut back substantially.
“The number has dropped to about 50,000, where it has remained through two Reagans, one Bush, two Clintons and a Bush again,” Tsemberis said. “So the number of affordable housing units in the country is pretty much depleted. Simultaneously, the real estate market has gone through the roof. In that economy, who gets left out of the equation? Poor people.”
The Feerick Center, which was launched in September 2006, operates much like a think tank and mediation center. Under the direction of former Fordham Law Dean John D. Feerick, J.D., Sidney C. Norris Chair of Law in Public Service, the center seeks to frame concrete solutions to problems plaguing the urban poor. The speaker series, initiated earlier this year, provides a forum for innovative thinkers on social justice issues to speak with students, faculty and alumni.
Tsemberis has drawn national attention for his innovative approach to dealing with the toughest sector of the homeless population, people suffering with mental illness or drug addiction. His program, known as Housing First, inverts the traditional approach to serving the homeless with mental illness or drug dependencies by providing permanent housing first instead of last, as a kind of reward for treatment.
People in the program are not required to seek treatment for mental illness or alcohol or drug dependency. They have only two requirements: abiding by the terms of the lease and agreeing to work with a Housing First team that can provide any help the tenant may need from treatment to job assistance.
“They don’t have to work with the team as in having to take medication or be tested for drug use,” he said. “[They] just have to tolerate that we’re going to visit them and ask how they are doing because we are responsible for the unit and for them.
“I try to think of it as if I had an older uncle with schizophrenia and who drinks and won’t listen to me and doesn’t respect my point of view,” Tsemberis said. “I can suggest things and can be very worried and sometimes I might even have to call the ambulance even if he doesn’t agree with me. But the approach is one of concern and caring and the repeated effort to say that life can be better.”
The approach has proven successful. Housing First began in 1992 with 50 apartments and it now manages some 560 units throughout the city, and Tsemberis said that about 20 similar programs have started around the country.
Despite the success of Housing First, Tsemberis is clear that the ultimate solution to the current wave of homeless that began in the 1980s and that he said has lasted longer than the one during the Depression is for the federal government to play a more active role in funding affordable housing.
The federal government, he said, does fund local coalitions of homeless-services providers and in recent years has increased spending by $35 million. It’s a step in the right direction, he said, but unless more affordable housing becomes available, the homeless problem will persist.
“I think the federal government holds the key to the solution,” he said. “When you go to other countries who have taken on this issue, they focus on building housing and there are examples in our own country of mixed-income housing. These are part of the solution but the larger issue is more housing. It’s about building affordable housing and making that housing accessible to the people who need it.”