Washington Wednesday: Homelessness in the United States

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 7th of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, Washington Wednesday.

EICHER: Last Friday, a famous physician read a story to children at a public school in Louisville, Kentucky.

CARSON: Hello, everybody! How many of you have heard of “Roly Poly?” Today we’re going to have a little story about Roly Poly. And hopefully you can all identify with this, OK? …Way up high in the Roly Poly sky….

Maybe you recognize the storyteller.

It’s the voice of neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson. He’s now President Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The agency is known as HUD.

Carson was in Louisville to highlight a literacy program he initiated called Book Rich Environments. That’s a partnership of nonprofits, government agencies, and book publishers to place books into the hands of children living in public housing.

CARSON: Safe and snug and sleepy, tucked tightly into bed, sweet round and roly dreams swirled in every Roly head. And that’s the end! [Clapping]

And Carson wasn’t the only one in Louisville. So was my co-host. And, Mary, you got a chance to interview Dr. Carson after the event.

REICHARD: Well, I did. And what I learned was that under Dr. Carson’s direction, one of HUD’s big concerns is for children in public housing. And another concern is the complex problem of homelessness. 

On any given night in this country, an estimated half a million people are living on the streets in the United States. HUD is particularly focused on families with children, homeless veterans, people with disabilities, and youth aging out of the foster-care system. 

But HUD’s approach to homelessness in years past mainly focused on getting a roof over people’s heads. Some say that approach ignores root causes of homelessness and doesn’t really address the underlying problems. 

We wanted to find out if that’s still the case, so I went to Louisville to ask.

REICHARD: So I just want to start with this wonderful event today, this Book Rich Environments. How does that relate to homelessness and HUD’s mission? 

CARSON: Well, first of all, let me point out that the one millionth book is being given out in the Book Rich Environments program today. And what we are focusing on now is how do we get people to a point of self-sufficiency. And many studies have shown that if you can get a child reading at grade level by grade 3 it changes the trajectory of their lives, in terms of, you know, completion of high school. In terms of career advancement. 

So, you know, we’re taking a longer term view. It used to be that we just kind of concentrated on how many people can we get under this roof? How many people can we get in this program? And now our focus is on how many people can we get out into a self-sustaining situation. 

REICHARD: I want to segue now into homelessness. HUD likes this idea of Housing First, where the idea is to get people off the street first and then address their other, underlying problems next. How do you think that concept is working? 

CARSON: I think it works very well. But bear in mind that when you leave someone on the street, it actually costs us more money. On average, to take someone off the street you’re talking $18,000 to $20,000 a year. To leave someone on the street—$33,000 to $44,000 a year. So, economically, it makes sense. 

But you know, we also recognize that our people are resources. And just getting them off the street is not enough, so we believe in housing first, second, and third. Housing second, figuring out why they were on the street in the first place. And housing third, fix it. 

Now, in some cases, it’s not fixable because they have severe mental problems or have aged out or something. And in those situations it still works to get them off the street, to get them to an environment where they’re not running to the emergency room every few days or, you know, winding up in the penal system or whatever, which costs our society a lot more money. 

REICHARD: Well, you know I’m going to be a contrarian a little bit, right? So you gave a speech in 2014 in San Diego with Solutions for Change, with the idea of getting people to break the cycle of dependency. And their concept is—instead of Housing First—is transformation first. So you get them in group homes and address their drug addiction, you address whatever their issue is, address alcoholism. Some would say the government is putting all the eggs in the Housing First basket, to the exclusion of the other transformations. Is that a fair characterization or not? 

CARSON: It was a fair characterization. It is no longer a fair characterization, because we have made it very clear to the consternation of some of the Housing First programs, is that our principle criteria for grants is results. So it’s not ideology or philosophy. So there are many programs, church, faith-based organizations that have requirements. That’s fine, as long as they’re getting good results. We will support them. 

REICHARD: Now, this was when you came in, so you wouldn’t have had much time to do anything. But in 2016, HUD reported that the rapid rehousing approach was “highly successful.” Their phrase. And then a year later in 2017 the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless found 45%, so almost half the families who did rapid rehousing were evicted or got sued for eviction in 2016. So these reports are conflicting. And only 2 out of 5 were able to maintain housing without federal aid. So do you think a re-evaluation is in order?

CARSON: Well, I think it has to be done the right way. And that’s when I talked about housing first, second, and third, sometimes people left out housing second. They didn’t figure out why they were there in the first place. If you don’t correct why they were there in the first place, they’re gonna get right back there again. So you have to take a more holistic approach. 

REICHARD: Is your physician training informing this job? 

CARSON: It is, in the sense that, you know, I like to look at evidence. And I like to make decisions based on evidence. You know, when you look at the longevity of people in this country now, the last turn of the century, the one before 2000, the average age of death was under 50. And now it’s approaching 80. 

And it wasn’t because of a genetic improvement, it was because physicians began to use evidence to make their policy. And that’s what changed life expectancy and that will change the outcome of what government does as well. 

REICHARD: Mmm-hmm. I spoke to a builder of low-income units in Springfield. I called her up and she said she was a bit frustrated in the 11th hour after the city of Springfield, Missouri, and the county had done the environmental impact, here came Mr. HUD in the 11th hour and demanded different things. One was a 12-foot fence that was going to get into a lawsuit with the neighboring building. So her question was what can be done to reduce regulatory burdens and not coming in at the 11th hour? 

CARSON: When you have a situation like that it’s usually a result of a bureaucrat. And we have bureaucrats in HUD, too. And that’s why we have regional administrators. And I suspect if that person had gotten ahold of the offices of the regional administrator, she would have made sure that logic was brought into the equation.

REICHARD: I wanted to ask you about the Envision Centers idea. Is that close to happening? 

CARSON: Yes. Several Envision Centers have opened in the last few months around the country. And many many more will be opening over the next year. And the whole concept with Envision Centers is taking things that already exist at the federal, state, and local level and putting them under one roof so that people actually have access to them. 

In many cases, it’s not that things don’t exist to get people on the right track; it’s that they don’t know about them. Or that they don’t have access to them. And I was sort of brought to that conclusion by looking at the HUD-VASH program. This is the program between HUD and the VA system. There were a lot of homeless veterans. And if you just gave them housing, that didn’t seem to help. And if you just gave them services, that didn’t seem to help. But when you gave them housing and services, a lot of them became self-sufficient. And I said there’s really no reason that that can’t happen with the general population as well. 

REICHARD: What would you say is your best accomplishment so far at HUD?  

CARSON: There’s been so many. But one of the things is when I came to HUD for 8 and-a-half years there had been no CFO. And financial controls were lacking severely. And when you’re talking about the tens of billions of dollars that flow through a place like HUD with a lack of financial control that could be a disaster. So we hired a CFO, Herb Dennis, with 37 years as a partner at Ernst & Young. And he has really gotten the place in shape now. And that has a lot of ramifications. We also have a terrific CFO now, a CIO, a Chief Information Officer putting together some terrific IT services. So that now we actually have the ability to monitor real time where the money is going and how it’s being used. 

REICHARD: Is that rare in government? 

CARSON: It’s very rare. And we’ll be able to really bring a level of responsibility to the various jurisdictions that was never there before. 

REICHARD: Final question. How does your faith inform your work? 

CARSON: It informs it significantly. I mean James 1:27 says, “Pure religion and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” That means a responsibility to take care of those who are vulnerable in our society. But we don’t have to become like everybody else. 

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks during a news conference after touring the Hollins House, a high rise building housing seniors and persons with disabilities, during a trip to Baltimore, Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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