Can we count on that as a long-term solution?
Shelters are certainly useful in that they provide beds and roofs to people who don’t have them, especially on cold and rainy nights where sleeping outside could be fatal for some.
But shelters are incredibly expensive to operate. Nationally, the average monthly cost of serving a family in an emergency shelter is $4,819. Providing them with a voucher for housing, on the other hand, is just $1,162. Shelters might be good for emergencies, but does having a bed to sleep in mean that someone has a home?
And quality can be an issue for these shelters: Many homeless people have told advocates trying to get them off the streets that they avoid shelters if they possibly can. They’ve heard about bad experiences there, or have themselves suffered through violence, theft, or other trauma in these ostensibly safer spaces. There were 826 “violent incidents” in New York City homeless shelters last year, including sexual assault and domestic violence, according to the New York Daily News.
People often have to leave food and other belongings behind when they check into a shelter, making it hard to accumulate anything of sentimental or material value. Plus, shelters don’t allow residents to develop a sense of permanency—and it’s permanency that helps people get a job or stay sober, as numerous studies have indicated.
Affordable housing would be a longer-term solution. Let’s just increase the number of these units overall. If more people can afford housing, they won’t be homeless.
If it were that easy to add more affordable housing, cities like New York and San Francisco would be very different than they are now, and far less expensive. It’s costly to build new apartments and homes in cities where land is pricey, and developers want to recoup their investment as soon as possible, which means they have to charge a lot for rent.
That’s not to say cities, states, and the federal government haven’t tried out a few strategies for hastening the construction of affordable housing. Have any of them been effective?
There are federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits that help certain developers build 100 percent affordable housing. But developers compete for those tax credits, and there aren’t enough to held build affordable housing for all the people who need it, much less for those who don’t have homes in the first place.
Inclusionary zoning policies can help create more affordable housing; in places such as Montgomery County, Maryland, for instance, all new apartment buildings with more than a certain number of units have to set aside a few of them to be designated as affordable housing, priced much lower than market rent. But then developers usually have to pass the costs of that lost rent onto the other tenants, which increases market-rate rent.