Tough love isn’t the answer
Editor’s note: The following guest column by Donald W. Burnes was submitted to the editorial board of the Denver Post but was declined by the newspaper. Don Burnes is the co-founder of the Burnes Center for Poverty Research at CCLP. He has studied and written about poverty and homelessness throughout his career. Read more about the author and the institute here.
In her recent column “We need tough love for those living on the streets,” published July 6, 2021 in The Denver Post, Krista Kafer says, “We’re doing too much” to help those experiencing homelessness. Kafer, a staff columnist for The Denver Post, describes unhoused individuals using all the classic tropes—that they’re drug addicts, alcoholics, and people just too darn lazy to care about their own human dignity. What’s worse, she claims, we encourage the squalor on our streets by spending too much money on this population, when all they need is a dose of “tough love.”
Unfortunately, Ms. Kafer has it all wrong—both in her assessment of the problem, and in her prescription for the cure. Her characterizations of homelessness rely on stereotypes that fail to capture the real picture of homelessness today. Most people experiencing homelessness are not addicts or alcoholics. Most do not live in tents. Some 40% are employed full-time and another 20% are employed part-time, but simply do not earn enough to afford an apartment in Denver’s stratospheric market.
According to one estimate, an hourly wage of $30 (more than twice our minimum wage) is required to afford the median 2-bedroom unit in the Denver metro. In addition, according to Common Sense Institute, by 2019 our region faced a deficit of 175,000 housing units, further compounding the difficulties of finding housing. It’s no wonder we have people without homes.
In our recent book, Journeys Out of Homelessness: The Voices of Lived Experience, my co-author and I were honored to share nine stories of individuals who experienced homelessness, written by those individuals themselves. In almost every case, they lost their housing not to alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental illness, but to parental dysfunction, administrative error, medical misdiagnosis, poor legal advice, and economic downturn. And in every case, these individuals overcame homelessness—not through the cruel fiction of “tough love,” but through networks of support, caring individuals, and community connections.
Ms. Kafer claims we spend $26,000 per person experiencing homelessness. This is a gross distortion based on a significant undercounting of the population. According to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, there were over 31,000 people in 2019 who were unhoused at one time or another. At $26,000 per person, we would have spent $806 million in one year. In reality, we spent a small fraction of this number, and some of what we did spend went toward expensive policing activities of the sort Ms. Kafer believes we need to increase.
Nevertheless, recent studies suggest that we would save over 50% of what we currently spend on homelessness if we just provided the necessary housing and services. These costs would more than offset what we spend today on health care and criminal justice interactions with the unhoused.
Ms. Kafer’s “tough love” approach is predicated on two assumptions: that people experience homelessness because they choose to do so, and that they could escape their situation if only they tried a little harder. For her, people without homes are victims only of their own moral failings, and as she quips, “Choices must have consequences.” In fact, most individuals experiencing homelessness do not choose those dire circumstances and work hard to escape. But all too often, the resources they need to succeed are simply out of reach.
Overcoming homelessness requires financial resources, better health care, employment, childcare, better educational opportunities, and, frankly, a more humane system of connecting individuals with the support they need.
To quote Ms. Kafer, “Necessity is necessary for change.” On this we can agree. We cannot continue to hold the paternalistic attitudes and negative stereotypes that have hampered real problem-solving for so long. We must abandon this notion of “tough love” and focus on the support systems we know lift families out of homelessness. Denver absolutely should be a safe, healthy, and secure place for residents to call home. That should be true for all our residents.