Will legislative efforts help or hurt the homeless? Varied approaches emerge

This information provided by Smart Cities Council Compassionate Cities.

When you consider the massive challenge that homelessness is around the world, it’s clear there is no single solution. At Compassionate Cities, we believe technology plays an important role. But we also recognize the impact public policymakers have, which is why we took a look at some current legislative schemes focused on homelessness. A couple may be a bit of a leap, but given how much suffering we're seeing in our cities today, I would argue we need bold ideas. (There’s a Comment form at the bottom of the page if you’d like to add yours.) – Liz Enbysk


One of the more unconventional approaches to solving homelessness comes from a physician/legislator in Hawaii who wants to treat homelessness as a medical condition and allow doctors to prescribe housing.

The bill introduced by Sen. Josh Green aims to remedy a couple of issues:

  1. Getting homeless people with mental illness or addictions off the streets and into transitional housing
  2. Reducing the high cost of treating the homeless in emergency rooms

Green told The Guardian that many of the homeless his bill would house cost the healthcare system an average of $120,000 annually, according to a recent study. Yet the cost to house an individual is $18,000 a year.

“We’re already spending the money on homeless people, we’re just paying for it in the most inefficient, expensive way possible,” he added.

Green has said he drafted the bill based on his own experiences with homeless patients in emergency rooms. He estimates SB7 could save Hawaii as much as $300 million in medical costs, which could be spent on housing instead.

Not everyone agrees with his approach, including some in the social services. They see opportunities for healthier homeless people to take advantage of the system; another told The Guardian that nine out of 10 mentally ill people placed in housing will simply leave.

Nonetheless, the bill passed the Hawaii Senate last week and moved to the House. You can read the bill text here.

Another proposal on mental illness and homelessness comes from the Montana Legislature, where the state House recently passed a bill that would prohibit the state mental hospital from discharging patients into homelessness.

HB 0257 reads: “The discharge plan for a person admitted to the Montana state hospital may not allow for the discharge of the person directly into a homeless shelter or to a location that is outdoors or outside of a building. The Montana state hospital shall ensure that its compliance with this requirement does not delay a person's discharge.”

Second try for the right to rest in Oregon
To curb efforts by local jurisdictions to criminalize homelessness and bolster protections for people living on the streets, Oregon lawmakers are considering a Right to Rest Act again this year. As the Portland Mercury explains, a similar bill failed to make it out of committee a year ago.

But much has happened since, including officials in Portland -- Oregon’s largest city -- declaring a housing and homelessness state of emergency. And in a particularly cold and snowy January, several homeless people – including a newborn infant – died on Portland’s streets.

HB 2215 would allow “explicitly allow homeless people to rest in public spaces -- including in vehicles on city streets -- so long as they’re not closed off to the public in general,” the Mercury explains. It also mandates that campers have a reasonable expectation of privacy and those violating it – with illegal searches of their tents, for instance – would be subject to fines or lawsuits.

One of the chief sponsors of the bill is a former police officer and police chief.

Homeless youth slipping through cracks?
Homeless charities in the UK are concerned that a housing benefit cut that passed through Parliament earlier this month will put more young people on the streets when it takes effect April 1. The move takes away housing benefits from single young people ages 18 to 21, although there are exceptions.

Those exceptions, The Guardian reports, include people with children and those who would be subject to “serious risk to the renter’s physical or mental health” or would otherwise cause “significant harm” if they continued living with parents.

With such broad terms, homeless advocates suggest it would be difficult for young people to prove potential harm and many would probably opt to sleep rough or on friends’ sofas rather than trying.

One charity anticipates the policy could put up to 9,000 young people at risk of not being able to find housing. “It’s so ill-judged,” Balbir Chatrik, head of policy for Centrepoint, told The Guardian. “The exemptions are going to be a nightmare to prove.”

A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May commented that the policy and its exemptions came from a long-standing commitment. “The aim of it, as we have always stated, is to ensure that young people don’t go straight from school and on to a life of benefits, he said.

Legislation aimed at homeless youth in Washington State, meanwhile, wants to ensure that “unaccompanied minors” – those who are homeless but not with a parent or guardian – are identified and visible to the system.

In 2015, the Legislature passed a Homeless Youth Act requiring the Department of Commerce to collect data on homeless youth. But current law doesn’t allow homeless youth to consent to share information without a parent or guardian.

House Bill 1630 allows minors to consent to share their personally identifying information in the Washington homeless client management information system.

“We need accurate data to help these young people finally be visible,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Vandana Slatter in a Kirkland Reporter article. “This can help us understand their needs and if interventions are working as intended. A lack of data should not be the reason a child cannot find a safe place to call home.”

The bill recently passed the Washington House and moved to the Senate for consideration.

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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