Homelessness is a Housing Problem

This is the particular kind of science that ought to be encouraged and supported. It’s one thing to expand humanity’s understanding and knowledge in a general sense. It’s another to investigate competing claims about causes of and solutions to the ills of society. Public policy must be subject to scientific scrutiny. We shouldn’t guess, we shouldn’t appeal to emotion. We should do what works, or we will be overtaken by those that do. Colburn and Aldern have done the math, made some conclusions, and written them up for broad consumption.

I say “broad consumption”, but our intrepid authors are still frustratingly unable to speak plainly. The demands of academic writing have corrupted their language to a frightening extent:

…We now turn to more fundamental structural drivers of this phenomenon: housing market conditions. In contrast to popular narratives concerning the causes of homelessness, abundant academic research provides credible links between housing markets and housing instability. As a result, a challenge has arisen to reconcile seemingly contradictory evidence—between anecdote and research. The complexity (and general inaccessibility) of the academic evidence base doesn’t help. Broadly speaking, scholarly communication has failed to inform or shift public perception of the nature of the country’s homelessness crisis, thereby opening the door for more readily interpretable (and emotional) explanations like drug use and mental health. But we argue the contradictions in question only emerge if we blur units of analysis. Throughout this book, we’ve sought to stress that attributing city-level findings to individuals—or vice versa—will often lead to imprecise (or flat-out wrong) diagnoses…

Colburn’s observation that “scholarly communication” has failed to reach the public is no surprise because it tends to resemble this passage. This sort of verbosity is unwelcome in a book intended for a broad audience. Make no mistake, I love me some florid prose. I love writers that dig deep in the dictionary and pull out arcane treasures, stringing them together in sentences that live full lives before leaving you bereft when they finally end. But this is not poetry. This book hovers uncomfortably between academic paper and popular science.

In its defense, this book is brief. While the writing is often unnecessarily convoluted, the book in whole is concise. We are not strung along; the conclusion is presented up front, plainly. The evidence is presented in appropriate detail; caveats are explained. And finally, solutions are enunciated. It all wraps up in 200 small pages.

This is not the definitive work on homelessness. It is, however, an objective analysis of the problem from an angle that can inform policy. This is not passion and anecdote: this is math and economics. The authors have no illusions about the scope of their work. It is not the whole picture, but it is a sizable and actionable part. To neglect this analysis is to perpetuate a failing system.