Local Politics: Columbus should tackle causes of homelessness, not symptoms

Rob Moore
Panhandlers Robert Campbell, left, and Stephen Valdez on East Broad Street Downtown

Late last month, Columbus City Council passed new restrictions on panhandling with the goal of reducing perceptions of increasingly aggressive panhandling in the city.

Critics of the new ordinance say the legislation does not address the root cause of panhandling: homelessness. Yes We Can Columbus, a consortium of progressive Democrats, has suggested that this ordinance could divert resources from programs that reduce income inequality and homelessness.

First, let's clear up some misconceptions: Not all panhandlers are homeless. According to a 2013 survey of panhandlers in San Francisco, almost 20 percent of panhandlers were not homeless. With Columbus' much more affordable housing market, one would expect an even greater share of Columbus panhandlers to not be homeless.

Also, not all homeless panhandle. Single-city surveys suggest that 5 to 40 percent of homeless individuals panhandle, so panhandling is a common activity only for a minority of people experiencing homelessness.

That being said, the majority of panhandling is carried out by people experiencing homelessness. While there are reasons to want to reduce panhandling in the short term, city leaders would be better served to tackle homelessness at its root rather than just treat its symptoms.

What would an effective approach to tackling homelessness look like? Salt Lake City offers one model. In the mid-2000s, it had about 1,000 people experiencing chronic homelessness. At the time, many cities across the country were piloting programs to reduce chronic homelessness, partnering with the Bush administration to do so.

Salt Lake City's approach followed a strategy that many practitioners in the field advocated for called “housing first.” While many homelessness programs required individuals to get sober or clear other benchmarks before getting housed, housing first puts homeless people in homes and then gets them the treatment and case management they need once they are housed.

In addition to housing first, Salt Lake City built housing in good neighborhoods. While some cities have built their transitionary housing in urban neighborhoods where homelessness is already rampant, Salt Lake City elected to put their housing on the edge of town so that people experiencing chronic homelessness would not fall into the same patterns that led them to homelessness initially.

Housing was also high-quality. Building housing that was attractive made it easier for the homeless to get off the street rather than staying on the street to avoid housing conditions that can sometimes be as bad as not being housed in the first place.

Lastly, Salt Lake City hired an adequate number of case managers, which enabled clients to get the support they needed to permanently get off the streets.

Salt Lake City's approach was not cheap, but it was effective. The city is down to about 100 chronic homeless — a 90 percent drop from the rate 10 years ago. If Columbus follows in Salt Lake's footsteps, it could also come up with real gains in its fight against homelessness.