Ken Calvert: Getting our homeless population the treatment they need

The epidemic of homelessness across the country, and particularly in California, demands that we take a different approach from a policy of benign neglect that has allowed one in four homeless people to die of an overdose.  Unfortunately, the epidemic is not easing but is getting worse. 

The latest United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Point in Time Count shows that the total number of homeless across the country has increased by 12 percent from last year. 

Since 2014, overall homelessness has increased nationally by 13 percent, while California and Los Angeles, the epicenters of homelessness, have increased 59 percent and 107 percent, respectively.  Los Angeles’ increase in homeless subpopulations is even worse, with a 260 percent increase in chronic homelessness and a 132 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness. Total annual federal spending on homelessness assistance is nearly $9 billion with more than $87 billion since 2008.  Currently, the federal government allocates approximately $13,000 per year per person to address the problem.

The most surprising fact is that the billions of dollars in taxpayer money both at the federal, state, and local level has not improved the situation in the slightest. The current policies and funding directed at this issue simply are not working. The only recommended solution from homelessness advocates, local governments, and HUD is to increase federal spending on housing assistance for homeless individuals regardless of whether lives are improving under current strategies. This is unacceptable and it is clearly failing the homeless population and the communities impacted.

Time and time again, we hear reports about how many homeless are being housed with government subsidies, yet these housing placements fail to make a dent in the number of people living on the street. It has become abundantly clear that federal policy is about maintaining the status quo rather than one focused on finding effective solutions to bring people out of homelessness.

To correct course, it’s time for the federal government to take a serious look at current policies that fail to address the needs of the fastest growing subpopulation of homeless – those with mental illnesses and substance-use disorders. Without treatment, these illnesses often prevent people from accepting help, which adds to the downward spiral, leading to further illness, destitution, and tragic outcomes.

There are a number of simple, common-sense reforms that can dramatically improve the current homeless situation.

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For starters, requiring HUD to improve coordination between housing assistance and mental health and substance abuse treatment. That is why I have introduced the Treatment and Homelessness Housing Integration Act. This legislation would pair housing assistance with an existing federal treatment program. This cost-effective approach would provide the treatment necessary to address some of the root causes of homelessness, creating a comprehensive strategy that not only provides federal housing assistance but also integrates the services necessary to bring about lasting solutions.

Allowing those with mental illnesses and substance-use disorders to deteriorate on the streets is neither compassionate nor economically sustainable. Shifting federal policies to couple housing assistance with treatment for homeless Americans is a crucial and necessary step toward achieving meaningful change in the fight against homelessness. For the mentally ill and addicted, the only hope for a life away from the streets is through treatment and sobriety. By addressing the root causes, we can give our fellow Americans struggling on the streets a true pathway to a brighter future. 

Ken Calvert represents California’s 41st congressional district.

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