Homelessness is a housing issue, UW professor says

The first FUSION fundraiser luncheon welcomed keynote speaker Gregg Colburn to discuss the root causes, misconceptions of homelessness.

FUSION Transitional Housing hosted its first fundraising luncheon on May 9, with the goal of debunking several social myths about homelessness and those impacted.

Over 150 attendees heard from keynote speaker Gregg Colburn, an assistant professor of real estate in the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments. Colburn earned a Ph.D. in Public Affairs from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

He is also the author of “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” a book that explores why rates of homelessness differ in cities across the U.S.

It’s a book about cities and not about people, he said.

“When we get into the social world, causation is a lot more complicated. Why? Because people are complicated,” he said. “It’s very hard to predict human activity … I would argue that homelessness is one of the most complex human phenomenons.”

Keynote speaker Gregg Colburn presents at the “myth-busters” luncheon on May 9. Photo courtesy of Michael Dziak, FUSION

Keynote speaker Gregg Colburn presents at the “myth-busters” luncheon on May 9. Photo courtesy of Michael Dziak, FUSION

Colburn said in 2019 when participating in one of the national Point-in-Time counts, which is a count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on one night in January, volunteers asked people what factors contributed to their current state of homelessness. The answers varied: Job loss, alcohol or drug use, divorce, domestic violence.

But, Colburn said, these are precipitating events, vulnerabilities with valid and tragic impacts to someone’s life path, and not root causes.

The root cause is a lack of housing, he said.

“We focus on these vulnerabilities rather than the root cause which is: We don’t have enough housing. It’s not accessible. It’s not sufficiently affordable, therefore people on the fringes end up losing,” he said.

There is data to support that people who have mental illnesses, who are in poverty, or those who have drug or alcohol addictions are more likely to be homeless, he said.

However, the question the book seeks to answer is: Why do rates of homelessness vary so widely throughout the United States?

At the local context level, tight housing markets in cities where housing is scarce and expensive “accentuate vulnerabilities and produce homelessness at disproportionate rates,” he said.

The book’s sample is of the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the country.

Colburn’s research and data collected debunk the myths that Democrat-run cities have more homeless people. It busts the myth that mental illness or substance abuse issues cause homelessness. A state’s weather nor a state’s “generous” benefits for homeless people cause higher rates of homelessness, he said.

“Generally speaking, the homeless population in your community is from your community,” he said.

FUSION founder Peggy LaPorte speaks with attendees on May 9. Photo courtesy of Michael Dziak, FUSION

FUSION founder Peggy LaPorte speaks with attendees on May 9. Photo courtesy of Michael Dziak, FUSION

Data shows that as a person’s income falls, residential mobility also falls — because moving is difficult and expensive, he said.

There is a strong relationship between rent and homelessness, Colburn explained. When and where rents are high, homelessness rates are also high. When vacancy rates are low, homelessness is high.

Supply elasticity, how an industry responds to changes in demand for its product, of the housing market varies from city to city, he said. Driving factors of this include an area’s topography and the regulatory environment, meaning how easy is it to build houses. Rapid population growth and slow, or no, housing market increase creates major issues.

When housing is difficult to construct, he said, changes to regulations and land-use policies are needed. Dense housing and often multifamily housing is needed to combat the issue.

“Structural problems like homelessness require structural solutions,” Colburn said. “Structural solutions include building a heck of a lot of housing, building affordable housing, trying to minimize racial disparities and lowering inequality in society generally speaking.”

Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) Superintendent Dr. Dani Pfeiffer also spoke at the FUSION luncheon about the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which provides ​​rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness.

Since the 2019-2020 school year to the current school year, FWPS has seen an over 75% increase in scholars who are served by the McKinney–Vento program (863 students to 1,310 students who have accessed support of the program).

The McKinney–Vento wrap-around services help students remain in school, assist in providing a better quality of life and help students reach graduation. The program offers various resources from tutoring and transportation to food and clothing.

FUSION owns and operates 21 houses in Federal Way and Northeast Tacoma for families transitioning out of homelessness. The nonprofit also runs the 31-room Pete Andersen FUSION Family Center, providing short-term housing for families in need. In addition, the nonprofit is creating a job skills training program at the Poverty Bay Cafe and operates the next-door FUSION Decor Boutique.

FUSION’s goal is to make homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring,” said Executive Director David Harrison at Tuesday’s event. At any given time, there are approximately 60 families in FUSION’s care.

In 2022, the nonprofit assisted 150 families. Of those families, only one person returned to homelessness last year, Harrison said.

So far this year, no one helped by FUSION has returned to homelessness. And as of this month, Harrison said, two families have purchased their first homes.