Michele Steeb co-author of the new book Answers behind the Red Door: Battling the Homeless Epidemic joins the podcast to detail the underlying problems in our nation’s rising homeless population. She’ll explain why many of our current policies have made the problem worse and why the key to helping those struggling the most involves much more than providing a roof over their head.
Michele Steeb is a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and oversees the Foundation’s initiative to transform the United States’ and Texas’ homelessness policy. She has spent her career in causes for the public good beginning with leadership roles in both federal and state senate campaigns. She served four years as the Vice President of Political Affairs for the California Chamber of Commerce and before that, founded two technology-focused companies. In 2006, Michele joined a struggling shelter for homeless women and children and transformed it into one of the nation’s beacons of success. During her tenure, Michele served on multiple boards to address homelessness and was appointed by Governor Brown to serve on the State’s Prison Industry Authority (2012-2020). She is a noted public speaker, has written numerous opinion editorials on homelessness.
Welcome to She Thinks a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg. And on today’s episode, Michelle Steeb coauthor of the new book, Answers Behind the RED DOOR: Battling the Homeless Epidemic joins us. She’ll detail the underlying problems in our nation’s rising homeless population and explain why many of our current policies have made the problem worse and why the key to helping those struggling the most involves much more than providing a roof over their head.
But before we bring her on a little bit more about Michelle, she is a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and oversees the foundation’s initiative to transform homeless policy in both United States and Texas. She has spent her career in causes for the public good beginning with leadership roles in both federal and state Senate campaigns. In 2006, Michelle joined a struggling shelter for homeless women and children and transformed it into one of the nation’s beacons of success. During her tenure, Michelle served on multiple boards to address homelessness and was appointed by Governor Brown to serve on the state’s prison industry authority. She has a noted public speaker and has written numerous opinion editorials on homelessness. Michelle, it is a pleasure to have you on She Thinks today.
Oh, thank you so much for having me, Beverly and for bringing light to this topic.
And this is a topic that unless someone knows someone who is homeless, probably isn’t something that we think about a lot. And so the first question I have for you is, why have you dedicated your life’s work to the study of homelessness?
It’s a great question. I have to say that one of my favorite sayings in the world is if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Dedicating my life to homelessness was not in my plan. I had a great job at the California Chamber of Commerce that I thoroughly enjoyed and was there for about four years when I joined the board of a 30-day emergency shelter called St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children, spent about six months on the board there and in a nutshell, a major crisis hit, we almost had to shut our doors. I stepped in for a month with the permission of my boss at the California chamber to, as he called it, fix it, and then come back in January, this was December 2006. I never came back to the chamber, I definitely helped them transition, but I fell in love with the work.
But what happened very early on in my couple of weeks of fixing it, a woman named Shelly came in with her two boys and a couple of days later, a woman named Katie came in with her daughter, Tori. And Katie and Shelly, I was shocked to learn we’re sisters, but the bigger shock was to learn that 18 years earlier they had lived at St. John’s shelter with their mother. And right then and there, literally, in my first couple of weeks, I said, “We can’t just be giving someone a roof and a meal for 30 days and think that we’re helping them change the trajectory of their lives.”
And it became a lifelong journey to build St John’s, that journey was cut short when my husband took a job in… St. John’s is located in Sacramento, and that journey was cut short in the middle of last year when my husband took a job in Texas, but it was cut short in running St. John’s. I decided I wanted to write this book and to explain to people because anywhere and everywhere I went when I told people what I did, they asked, “Why is homelessness exploding? Why is it exploding everywhere? It’s not just in urban areas, it’s in suburban areas, it’s in rural areas, why is this happening?” Pre COVID, we had a fantastic economy, so what was going on?
And I spent the last year and a half in great detail diving in and helping to answer that question in Answers Behind the RED DOOR, the book that I co-authored. But not just why, we also answer what we all need to do, and we all need to get on the boat and start rowing together. And it really is going to take an all hands on deck effort. And I detail that as well in Answers Behind the RED DOOR.
But I think the most important thing I just wanted to share through the book and share today is it’s a book about hope, this absolutely can be turned around. And I share 10 stories of women who came from the depths of despair to leading their families, to leading productive lives, to holding a job, to making sure their children are doing well in Zoom school in these crazy COVID times. These are 10 women who people wouldn’t even make eye contact with on the street who are now leading amazing lives and their stories help unveil some of the answers, but they also help unveil hope because we all need hope today in more ways than one.
And I think that’s such an important part of the book because that hope is in there. And it does give you those action steps that you can take, policies that we can look to you because I think I could speak for everybody listening to this podcast that we’ve had that conversation in our heads when we’ve seen someone homeless, should we give them the money? Does that actually help? Does that hurt? What is it that we do? And so I’m so glad there is a book like that, that gives us the information, not just about where the situation is today, but what we can do about it. So to delve into all of that, I first want to start with the data. Let’s talk about how homelessness has grown. I know in 2013, the national homeless population was just over 800,000, but that number has exploded in recent years, correct?
Yes, it’s gone up by 16% at a minimum. One of the challenges that we have is that at the federal level, and the federal government really drives homeless policy, they also drive funding in homelessness, but at the federal level, there’s really two distinct definitions of what constitutes a homeless person, and in particular, a homeless family. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, which largely drives homeless policy has a very narrow and quite frankly, the unrealistic definition of a homeless family. The Department of Education has a much more realistic and broader definition. So if you look at HUD numbers, they say it’s somewhere around 600, 700,000 people that are homeless. If you look at the Department of Education numbers, which just measures K through 12 students, they say it’s around 2 million. So I really believe the number is closer between two and 3 million, but there are varying definitions that create the varied baselines that you just discussed.
So, let’s get into what’s causing this, and why have we seen these numbers swell to the tragic number of what you suspect is two to 3 million who are homeless?
So, in the digging that I did, it turns out that the federal government… There was a policy created actually under the George W. Bush administration to address the very severely chronically homeless, the very severely mentally ill, addicted street, homeless population, largely. And the idea was to get them off the streets, which we need to do because they are costing the system a lot of money by being on the streets. They’re hurting themselves, they’re hurting the system, so we need to get them off the streets as quickly as possible. Housing First, which is the solution that they came up with was an idea of getting them off the streets and getting them into housing very quickly, but not requiring anything of them while they were in that housing because that would create a barrier to them wanting to go.
So, for instance, no rules about curfew, no rules about drinking or doing drugs, no rules about anything, really. Just get them into this house and hopefully, they will, at some point, want to get services. And that was the policy developed for this very small segment. At that point, it was somewhere between 10 and 15% of the homeless population.
Under the Obama administration in 2011 to 2013, without any research to show that it would work, they decided to roll it out as a one size fits all solution. If you look at the data, and I chronicle all of this in the book, the homelessness was really kind of going down in many categories, or at kind of a steady-state in other categories up until the policy shift in ’11 to ’13. When they instituted Housing First for everyone struggling with homelessness, 75% of whom are struggling with mental illness and addiction, the rate of homelessness began to skyrocket. And like I said earlier in the discussion, it’s gone up by at least 16%, depending on what definition of homelessness you’re using.
So, the irony does not only have it gone up, but when they instituted Housing First or rolled it out as this one size fits all, they literally said it was going to end homelessness in a decade. Not only did it go up by 16%, but we also increased spending by over 200%. The data is so clear, it has failed miserably as a one size fits all solution. And there was no data to support that it would work, so it’s not a surprise that it’s failed, but what we need to focus on now is what to do going forward and that’s what this book really chronicles in detail.
So, if Housing First isn’t the answer, and even though that didn’t work I’m sure it came with good intentions, but like you were saying, this isn’t just a one size fits all. And with many people, as you mentioned, struggling with addictions, does it have to be a multi-pronged approach, one that for many cases starts with drug treatment and rehab?
Yeah, so let me talk about what we did at St. Johns. So I mentioned this story of Katie and Shelly coming in, the sisters who had at St. John’s 18 years earlier with their mom. What we did is we began to look at what is leading these women to St. John’s, and it was largely addiction and mental illness, also domestic violence. In the case of women and children, criminal history, about 60% had a criminal history, which prevented them from getting apartments and/or jobs. About 50%, didn’t have a high school diploma or GED, so there’s a myriad of issues. So we said we were going to build a program to help them address all their underlying issues so that they could eventually afford housing on their own, maintain it, and be able to maintain and provide for their families.
It turned out for us, it was an 18-month program, and we brought all of those services that they needed under one roof. So at St. John’s you live there, there’s drug and alcohol counseling, there’s mental health counseling, there’s childcare for your children, there are all the classes you need. There are reunification services if you’ve lost custody of your children. There’s employment training. We started two restaurants and a daycare program, all of which serve as hands-on employment training environments. And it is that all under one programmatic roof, coordinated effort that helps really in a very efficient, but effective way, move these women from this point of crisis to be able to be self-sustaining. Our system right now says, all we need to do is put all these people in a house, it’s completely ignoring the underlying issues that bring in the homelessness. And similar to what we saw at St. John’s, if you look at the overall homeless population, about 78% struggle with mental illness, 75% with addiction, and again, there’s a myriad of issues, criminal histories, lack of education, lack of employee training that they face as well.
We, as a system, absolutely need to focus on housing, but not permanent housing right away, temporary housing, where they gain the skills, they gain the tools to be able to manage their issues or overcome their issues, and eventually get into the housing that they can afford, maybe not exclusively on their own, but largely on their own. Not everyone is going to be able to become self-sustaining who is homeless today, but they can become better. They can become more productive. They can contribute to their health and to their welfare going forward.
But our policy today basically locks them in, we call it a straight jacket to homelessness. It locks them into the state at which they enter homelessness. They’re not asked to do anything different. They’re not asked to get treatment, to become able to manage their behaviors and make sure they don’t fall down again in the way they fell down before they entered homelessness. None of that is funded, it’s not required, it’s not offered. So we’ve completely divorced the housing from the services under the Housing First initiative. And it is so wrong, and the data is so clear that it has failed as a one size fits all solution.
And what does the data show when it comes to those who are homeless, the percentage that does have some type of addiction, whether alcohol or drugs? And does that present another layer of problems in that somebody has to want to be clean in order to get clean? And so do you find that many people who are in this situation, do have a desire for the help, or is a lot of this trying to work with them to show them that they can have a better life and convince them that this is the right direction for them to go?
It’s a fantastic question, here’s what I would say, to answer your question about the data, about 78% of the homeless population today struggles with mental illness, about 75% struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. I often say no one grew up saying, “You know what? I can not wait to live on the streets and be homeless.” No one who enters homelessness ever said that growing up, a lot of these people don’t know what they don’t know. So many of our women at St. John’s started using with their mothers at the age of 13. And what happens when you start using in that way, abusing drugs, your mental development stops. So when you finally quit using your mindset is of the age at which you started using.
We really need to do a combination of things. One is to help open their eyes to something very different, that they may have never seen in their lives. We’re seeing a lot more generational homelessness today than we’ve ever seen before, not just with women and children, but in the population overall. They may have never seen what it looks like to have an adult working in the household. Not using drugs to get by. Maybe an adult that’s had a mental illness, but was maintaining themselves through medication and counseling, they haven’t seen that and so we need to really open their eyes to that. But at the same time, we have to have requirements, that is how life works. That is how the world works. That’s how society works. You can not have any requirements for people. We all have to follow laws, including those who are homeless.
So, one of the things that drive me crazy, I keep seeing this and I just saw Governor Newsom in California do this last week. He instituted a mandatory curfew because of the COVID numbers going up. Okay, I’m not here to argue whether or not that was good or bad, but then he excluded the homeless from it. And I tweeted out about this, I said, “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you give the homeless… Why are you telling them they’re different? Why are you telling them they can’t do what other people can do? Give them a chance.” Give them a chance to try and protect themselves and to try and protect their community by following these laws. And maybe you don’t enforce it in the same way, especially, in certain situations, but give them a chance. It is so demeaning to literally say to them, “You shouldn’t even try because you won’t be able to do it.” That’s horrible. That’s a horrible way.
Absolutely. And I think like you were saying there, with that requirement of some type of action on their part, they feel as if they have something to contribute, which is important for every person to feel valued and have a decision-making process involved with it. So I completely agree, it helps the internal aspect of a person to feel more like everyone else if they have to have skin in the game. And I want to transition just a little bit to the laws, you were talking about laws. There has been in States the trend of decriminalizing marijuana, and now there is a bill that did pass the house on the federal level to do just that. It does need to go to the Senate and the president, we don’t know where it’s going to go. How has the change in decriminalizing marijuana added, changed the homeless situation, or has there not been any effect of that?
Well, I don’t know that anyone can answer the question at this point, right? I think it was Oregon and Colorado and Washington who kicked off this trend, California legalized marijuana at the beginning of… It was legal for medicinal uses before that, recreational uses became legal in 2019. I don’t think we have enough data behind us, really, to look at this and make definitive statements about whether or not it’s helped or hurts homeless numbers. But I can tell you from my personal experience, I’m not a drug and alcohol counselor, but I’ve worked with them for the last 14 years, and all of them with whom I’ve worked believe that marijuana is a gateway drug, that it does lead to additional drug use and drug abuse.
I can also tell you that with the homeless population, 75% of whom are struggling with addiction, it does them no good to be around, in terms of recovering, to be around people who are continuing to use and to live with people or live next door to people who are continuing to use, it becomes very problematic for them in terms of healing their own self and their situations.
I would like to add if I may, one additional point, I have been so impressed with this administration, the Trump administration’s response to the opioid crisis. Some of you may be aware that the crisis really came to a head under the last administration. The largest investment that the administration had made was somewhere around five to $600 million, which is no small change. This administration, with the president taking the lead and with unanimous bipartisan support from Congress, invested five and a half billion dollars annually. If you look at data to address the opioid crisis, and that was back in, what was that ’17, the numbers have just started to come down. It just started to come down in ’19 and a little bit more in ’20, so we’re seeing a very positive trend with this significant investment.
But if you look at the data, and it’s, again, varied, about 35 to 70% of those who struggle with addiction end up falling into homelessness, entering in whatever you want to call it. When the policy is you’re then going to take them and put them in a house where drug use is allowed to continue and where their neighbors are likely using as well, it is a recipe for disaster. You might as well not even make the investments. They need to be in clean and sober housing that’s required. They need to be tested. They need to be encouraged. They need to be coached. They need to be counseled. And none of that happens under Housing First.
And this leads me perfectly to my last question for you, which is the approach that you’ve used, not only does it make sense on paper, but you’ve put it into practice and it has worked, it’s the multi-prong approach that you just mentioned. Is there any movement or was there any movement in the Trump administration? And do you see that there’s a potential even in a Biden administration to have more of this holistic approach to helping someone get back on their feet, that includes the prongs that you’ve discussed? Do you see any movement on that, or is the answer in government still, spend money, put people in houses, and that that’s the only answer?
So, we absolutely saw movement in the Trump administration, and one thing that we called for there was a small group of providers who had all been negatively affected by Housing First, along with TPPF, where I now am a senior fellow. And we called on the administration to show us the data, show us the data in terms of how Housing First is work since its rollout in 2013 to today. And we finally have that data, that data was just released in October and it was so… And it’s the data I referenced earlier, and I include in my book, they were so struck by this data as well, meaning the administration, that they decided they needed a new plan to address homelessness, and they also launched that in October, along with this data called Expanding the Toolbox. You can Google it, it’s actually housed at the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, it’s called, USICH is its acronym.
And that data, that Expanding the Toolbox report very much emulates what I described St. John’s to have become, they very much advocate an approach where we address the underlying issues, we provide temporary housing while we do that. But this idea of permanent housing, this is lifelong housing, meaning we give everyone who’s homeless a house for life while they’re not exciting, and there’s going to be new people coming into the system, and we’re going to have to create more housing and fund more housing, and it’s just not working. And it’s not upholding the dignity of the individuals that had entered into homelessness.
So, this Expanding the Toolbox is worth Googling. Do I think this incoming Biden administration is going to do anything with it? No, unfortunately not. They created this policy. They rolled out Housing First as a one size fits all solution. They are bringing back a lot of the people from the Obama administration that served back then, so I really don’t believe they’re going to willingly change this policy. However, we have data now, we’ve never had data and we have this data and it’s very clear and very compelling. And if all of us get in this boat and start demanding policy change and demanding accountability from those serving in the administration, I think we have a shot at getting this done with the data, with everyone rowing in the boat in the same direction.
Absolutely, and for those who want to have all that data, you can get the book, it is called Answers Behind the RED DOOR: Battling the Homeless Epidemic. Michelle Steeb, thank you so much, not only for joining us but also for all your work on this ever-important issue, we appreciate your time.
Thank you so much, Beverly.
And thank you for joining us. Before you go, Independent Women’s Forum does want you to know that we rely on the generosity of supporters like you, and investment in IWF fuels our efforts to enhance freedom, opportunity, and wellbeing for all Americans. Please consider making a small donation to IWF by visiting iwf.org/donate, that is iwf.org/donate. And last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks do leave us a rating or review on iTunes, it does help. Also, we’d love it if you share this episode and let your friends know where they’ve can find more She Thinks episodes. From all of us here at Independent Women’s Forum, thanks for listening.