In my heart, I'm a Californian, but for the last year and a half I've been living in Pittsburgh attending graduate school. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where housing is scarce, then moved down to Los Angeles for nine years, the homeless capital of the country, before moving out east.
Homeless advocates have long argued that the answer to ending homelessness is straightforward, build more affordable housing. I too subscribed to this dogma before moving to Pittsburgh, where the last thing any neighborhood needs is more housing development.
Pittsburgh's population has been declining for the last several decades, as the local economy still has yet to fully recover from the loss of the steel industry. The perennially depressed economy has left a city that was built for a million people with a population of just under three-hundred thousand.
Of course, while there is plenty of affordable housing in Pittsburgh, that does not mean the city lacks for troubled neighborhoods. Quite the contrary, low population density and housing availability comes at a steep price; job scarcity and infrastructural dilapidation.
I'm not suggesting that building affordable housing has no role in addressing homelessness. It is a sensible regional approach, where housing is scarce. But the affordable housing mantra typically takes a national tone, even though that strategy only makes sense in certain parts of the country.
Indeed, housing is just one part of ending homelessness. Even though the word "homeless" suggests the absence of a home is the sole defining characteristic, homelessness is far more complex than the name suggests.
Ultimately, ending homelessness requires a range of strategies that are crafted and implemented with regional sensibility. While not all communities are the same, human suffering is unacceptable anywhere. Let's use the strategies that best fit the needs of those who are hurting in our own backyards.
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