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

By Liz Enbysk, Smart Cities Council

When you consider the massive challenge that homelessness is around the world, it’s clear there is no single solution, but policy makers can have a substantial impact.

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 Hawaii Sen. Josh Green  aims to remedy a couple of issues:

  • Getting homeless people with mental illness or addictions off the streets and into transitional housing
  • 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.

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?
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, Wash. 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.”


Liz Enbysk is editor of the Smart Cities Council’s Compassionate Cities campaign, which highlights how cities are using technology to help under-served populations. Learn more by registering for the Council's Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley, May 8-10 in Santa Clara, CA.


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