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  • "Homelessness is now really hampering [the ability] of major cities to get people back to the office and revitalize central business corridors."   Tweet This
  • "Policy wonks have devoted a great deal of interest, of late, towards strengthening the family, but...the topic of a 'family-centered mental health agenda' has been a bit overlooked." Tweet This
  • "Every mentally ill homeless person once had housing, usually because they lived with their families before that became unsustainable." Tweet This
Category: Poverty, Interview

An odd thing about so-called superstar cities and boomtowns—places where the “winners” of the global economy tend to move and live—is that they are overwhelmed by homelessness. As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Stephen Eide puts in his new book, Homelessness in America: The History and Tragedy of an Intractable Social Problem, “there’s less public concern about homelessness in Youngstown than there is in San Francisco.” Images of homeless encampments, violence, filth, and disorder haunt our media. Claims of systemic failure abound. To the left, austerity politics and NIMBYism are the root causes of homelessness—a mark, supposedly, against the right. To the right, liberal contempt for public order and the fraying of the social fabric is to blame. It appears we have a political problem, or at the very least, a culture war. 

And yet, homelessness has a face. Buried underneath these layers of despair is a member of the human family, a fellow American, and a child of God, so it’s a problem that we cannot leave jammed up in the conflict between left and right. We must do something. But what? 

Eide’s book is the most comprehensive account of homelessness in America; a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the problem and look for solutions. Reader be warned: he offers no quick fix, and no one fix. But that should not cause us to shy away from our duty to help our fellow Americans. Eide provides a roadmap for how. To better understand this issue, IFS asked Eide five questions. 

Michael ToscanoWhat is the connection between success and homelessness? 

Stephen Eide: Rural Mississippi, Detroit, other Rust Belt cities: these places face a long list of challenges. Homelessness, though, ranks low. By contrast, in San Francisco and New York, homelessness tops surveys of public concern. Pre-pandemic, urbanites seemed to take homelessness-related disorder in stride. It was almost like a Faustian bargain, a price you just had to pay for urban vitality. But after everyone spent 1-2 years at home, collective standards for public order rose. Homelessness is now really hampering [the ability] of major cities to get people back to the office and revitalize central business corridors. 

Clearly, the homelessness crises in San Francisco and New York should cause us to qualify those cities’ reputations as successful cities. Their success, such as it is, may even have hindered their ability to address homelessness by breeding complacency. “We’ll just focus on attracting in more affluent professionals, to keep generating more tax revenues to fund more government programs, and those will eventually deal with the problem.” I’m all for funding worthy public programs, but the unwillingness to confront the underlying causes of homelessness is just staggering in some of these “superstar” cities.  

ToscanoIn the first chapter, “Homelessness: An Elusive Concept,” you explain that the word “homeless” is relatively new, and that previously we used terms like “vagrant” and “bum.” How does this change our understanding of the problem and the way we address it?  

Eide: “Homeless” and “homelessness” are terms that, around 1980, were essentially invented by advocates. They wanted something less stigmatizing than “vagrant” and “bum,” and that pointed more directly to their preferred government response of more money for subsidized housing. 

We’re still very much living in the advocates’ world insofar as we keep using their terms. But that creates problems. In debating the issue, we talk past each other. One person’s speaking of a single mother with two kids living doubled-up with family. Someone else is using the same term to refer to an encampment dweller who hasn’t had contact with his family for 20 years. And we tend to neglect solutions other than subsidized housing.

ToscanoIn Chapter 7, you write, “Homeless people report that they have no friends at a much higher rate than non-homeless people do…. Stronger social cohesiveness probably accounts for the low levels of homelessness among otherwise poor immigrant cohorts. Thus, among the many other reasons for why we should work to reknit civil society’s frayed fabric is, we might thereby reduce homelessness.” And yet, in the next paragraph, you warn that we must be cautious about trying to “apply concepts drawn from the social capital debate to homelessness.” Why? 

Eide: When we talk about problems like teens living too much of their lives online, the lockdowns’ mental health legacy, loneliness, the decline in adult male companionship, our talk about solutions focuses mainly on connection. How to re-establish ordinary human connections? In those contexts, we worry less about when connection is a bad thing. But that is a profound concern among homeless people and people at risk of homelessness. In his classic book about welfare reform, American Dream, Jason DeParle speaks of “crab-pot” stories: “someone who tried to get ahead but was dragged down by family and friends.” 

I mean, it’s still a question of “capital,” right? Social resources that can compensate for the lack of financial resources. New York City’s Doe Fund helps re-integrate ex-offenders into society by building a brotherhood around a shared commitment to work and sobriety. But there’s just much more nuance over the question of frayed social bonds in cases like when a family must decide whether to take in a 30-year-old male relative who might otherwise wind up on the street.

ToscanoIn chapter 8, you write, provocatively, “We’d have less housing instability in America had we more family instability.” What do you mean by that? 

Eide: Before the rise of the single-parent family, we never talked about homeless families. There were always destitute, “placeless” single adult men, but we didn’t group them with poor families. In fact, not being a part of a family was one of their defining features. It’s probably not a coincidence that family homelessness and the normalization of single parenthood burst on scene at around the same time. 

If anyone needs more evidence about the flaws of the single-parent family, modern family homelessness provides it. We wouldn’t have nearly as much family homelessness as we do if the “poor man’s Brady Bunch” model (as my colleague Kay Hymowitz once put it) had as much resilience as progressives sometime allege. 

The last time I consulted the data, over 90% of homeless families in New York City were headed by a single parent. That’s an extraordinary risk factor. There’s no city in America where the single adult street homeless population is over 90% seriously mentally ill.  

ToscanoChapter 9 addresses the problem of schizophrenia and the closing of state asylums. You write that “prior to deinstitutionalization, families were not assumed to be responsible for their adult schizophrenic relatives.” Today, that burden falls most heavily on families. What effect has this had on American families and what can we do to help them? 

Eide: It used to be considered appropriate, if a family had a seriously mentally ill relative, to commit them long term to an institution. Meaning a psychiatric hospital run by state government. I find this interesting because we normally think of the modern “big government” era as having crowded out civil society-based solutions to social problems. In the case of mental illness, though, under the old order, government had the lead. Since the 1950s, we have closed over 90% of our public psychiatric hospital beds. This thrust an enormous responsibility onto families. 

I’ve interviewed mothers of mentally ill adults who lock their bedroom doors at night. Intrafamily violence is disproportionately committed by people with serious mental illness. Families strive desperately to stabilize their loved ones in the home environment, but it’s simply not always feasible. Every mentally ill homeless person once had housing, usually because they lived with their families before that became unsustainable.  

Families need relief from privacy laws that prevent them from monitoring their loved one’s treatment regimen. They need more “beds,” not only in psychiatric hospitals but in other residential programs that can offer 24/7 supervision when that can’t happen at home. The legal system can also help families, by setting up ramped up forms of supervision, such as conservatorships and court-ordered treatment.  

Policy wonks have devoted a great deal of interest, of late, towards strengthening the family, but I have to say that the topic of “a family-centered mental health agenda” has been a bit overlooked.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.