Homelessness, Political Ideology, and the Fallacy of the Single Cause

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The next time someone expresses a firmly held opinion about homelessness, ever so gently recommend that they read Homelessness is a Housing Problem. The more people who read this book, the closer we’ll be to a solution.

Like most of my Portland (OR) neighbors, I was initially mystified by the city’s explosion of homelessness, evident even in my tony neighborhood, in the past several years. Why now, as opposed to during the financial crisis of 2007‑2009?

It seems intuitively obvious, after all, that homelessness should worsen during hard times, as happened during the Great Depression, when Hoovervilles – extensive shantytowns that housed the evicted and dispossessed – blighted the nation’s large cities.

Similarly, when the recession of the late 1970s produced an abrupt increase in homelessness, FEMA, of all agencies, spearheaded the mitigation effort, as if was a temporary natural disaster.

But as the economy recovered, homelessness didn’t. In 1986, two NBER researchers, Richard Freeman and Brian Hall, who observed its rise in Boston, were the first to resolve the apparent paradox. A generation later, their prescience impresses:

… the pattern of rapidly rising land prices, rents, and housing market problems for the poor in Massachusetts raises the possibility that future economic progress, including full employment … may exacerbate rather than alleviate the housing problems of the poor.