House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump have pledged to revamp our nation’s welfare system for the first time since 1994. These changes could not come soon enough. The War on Poverty, which was launched in 1965, has cost three times as much as all our wars combined since the American Revolution. Yet, after spending $22 trillion, this war remains a stalemate at best. And when it comes to homelessness, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported that America’s homeless population increased in 2017 for the first time since 2010. This trend is unacceptable. It must be reversed, and it can be if reasonable-minded people of good will on all sides have the courage to rethink their assumptions about how best to fight homelessness and poverty.

For too long, the conventional wisdom on fighting homelessness has said to put “housing first.” On its face, this approach makes sense: Put people in housing and you end homelessness. Right? But decades of experience and results suggest this strategy is incomplete. What works, instead, is a holistic and community-led approach that puts individuals and families first.

A recent groundbreaking study on youth homelessness by University of Chicago’s national Voices of Youth Count initiative exposed the limitations of a “housing first” model. The study found a strong correlation between homelessness and a variety of factors, including lack of educational attainment, unplanned pregnancy, substance abuse, mental health challenges, and low income.

  • Youth without a high school diploma or GED are 3.5 times more likely to be among the more than 4 million youth and young adults who experience homelessness each year. This was the single highest risk factor for homelessness.
  • Youth who are pregnant or parenting are more than three times as likely to experience homelessness. More than one out of three homeless young women are pregnant or parenting.
  • Meanwhile, 28 percent of youth were reported as having substance use problems, and 66 percent were indicated as having mental health difficulties, while experiencing homelessness.
  • Youth and young adults with lower household incomes were 162 percent more likely to experience homelessness than young adults with higher incomes. However, unemployment itself was not strongly correlated with youth homelessness. This suggests that employment will not by itself solve the problem. Instead, the focus should be on lifting youth out of homelessness through helping them obtain better-paying jobs, and the education and training necessary to secure such jobs.

Note that these factors that make people homeless aren’t necessarily addressed by a “housing first” approach.

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