Civil Society and Homelessness

In Washington, people are still arguing about whether nonprofits or the government should help the poor. They’re behind the times.

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Stereotypically, liberals want to help the homeless with government programs. Conservatives want to do it with charities and churches. The prevailing wisdom on both ends is that the government programs aren’t doing very well, and depending on who you’re listening to, the solution is either more government programs or fewer.

But the prevailing wisdom—including on the conservative end—is a case study in the deafness of the political class to concrete solutions.

An example: Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield at The Heritage Foundation just released a report on “Understanding Poverty in the United States.” The gist of the report’s purpose is to argue against the expansion of the welfare state, and demonstrate that American “poverty,” as typically defined by liberal organizations, isn’t so bad. The report is characteristic of the habits of national conservative figures: it bashes the welfare state, and brandishes civil society as the alternative.

Fair enough. But people who are temporarily homeless aren’t going to be cheered up by being told they don’t have it as bad as poor people in Africa. And as other recent articles on this site have pointed out, civil society isn’t so healthy itself. Yet its role is bigger, and the federal government’s role smaller, than either has been in some time. The bridge is the American city, which has taken the lead on a policy problem the nonprofit sector relinquished generations ago and the federal government lost by default more recently.

In short, the paradigm has changed. In Washington, people are still arguing about whether the church or the government should help the poor. In cities—the real front in the daily war on poverty—civil society and government are rapidly figuring out how to play nicely together.

The Big Federal Dollar

Since 2007, the number of people using urban homeless shelters has decreased 17% (to 1.02 million), but the number using rural and suburban ones has increased 57% (to 576,000). Stays in emergency housing in cities have, however, become longer, reducing the capacity of the shelters. Also, the number of families (as opposed to individuals) using emergency shelters has increased 20%. Long story short: a lot of people are, at some point in the year, homeless.

A reality conservatives need to recognize is that government services carry a huge percentage of the cost of aiding these people.  According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1.59 million people spent at least one night in a government emergency shelter or transitional housing unit in 2010 (a 2% increase from 2009). An estimated 690,000 people received assistance as part of the new federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program.

This level of federal involvement affects the much-vaunted (by conservatives) efficiency of nonprofit efforts. I spoke with a friend who is a development director at a poverty/homelessness-fighting nonprofit. She proudly told me 91% of their budget goes to direct services (a vastly higher rate than government agencies). But she added that part of the reason they could be so efficient was that other organizations (mainly government ones) were handling some of the more expensive services, and it was normal for her organization to refer relevant cases to those agencies. In turn, nonprofits like hers have received more government funding (more on that later).

So someone will need to tell Ron Paul that we can’t just ditch federal involvement overnight. That said, federal efforts since the Great Society to reduce or eliminate homelessness have been an abject failure. For long-term solutions, it’s local institutions that have taken the lead.

The City and the Rise of Civil Society

A number of major U.S. cities have recently implemented 10-year plans to end “chronic homelessness.” (They won’t, of course, but some smart policy changes might make a pretty big dent.) These efforts haven’t looked anything like the Great Society. Nor, however, have they looked like the federal government died and civil society instantly grew the capacity to pick up the slack. Such clear-cut distinctions sound great in a George Mason political science class or Nancy Pelosi’s floor speeches, but they don’t exist in 21st-century America.

On the contrary, the most notable development in the past 10 years in helping the homeless has been the way city governments have taken the lead and worked with private organizations.

All of the 10-year chronic homelessness efforts are relying heavily both on partnerships with nonprofits and foundations and on incorporating some of their methods. Since 2003, public housing and housing vouchers have included increased accountability mechanisms and partnerships with private housing, and employment assistance has increasingly become a province of nonprofit and faith-based organizations.

Denver, which is six years into its ten-year plan to end homelessness, built its anti-homelessness effort around a major nonprofit, and several smaller nonprofits have provided other support. The city is using federal stimulus money (a lot of it), but it’s not getting channeled through normal federal programs. And the number of chronically homeless people has gone down from 942 in 2005 to 343 in 2009. (Though that is a small percentage of the total homeless population of 11,300.)

Public funding in many cities represents the bulk of spending, but nonprofits have made that spending more efficient and more effective. Denver saw its annual costs per homeless person drop from $40,000 to $15,000 in five years. Another city’s costs went from $54,000 to $13,000. And new nonprofits have in some cases sprung up to meet the need when city leaders called.

As I noted earlier, though, there’s little evidence that private charity is considerably more effective in this area by itself. Cooperation has become the norm, making it difficult to discern financially where one party’s dollar leaves off and another begins. When two or more parties pool resources to aid a homeless person to self-sufficiency, they affect each other’s efficiency, costs, and success rates. Federal money remains in the picture, but on the local level, many city officials are doing what national officials won’t—take the lead on policies that work with civil society, get the best out of it, and make it grow.


National conservatives are interested in letting civil society do what it once did. Local conservatives—and in many cases liberals—are more interested in the policies that will make it work best now. That doesn’t mean changing its character; it means adapting it to real conditions. It means prudential politics, not the “bogus eternity of an ideology.” Not everything every city is trying is working. But at least they are not busy telling us poor people have two televisions.

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