Once Homeless, Now I'm a Multi-millionaire. Biden's Homelessness Plan Will Fail | Opinion

As part of President Joe Biden's new infrastructure plan, he unveiled nearly $5 billion in new grants to state and local governments for rental assistance and the development of affordable housing. In doing so, he aims to get 130,000 homeless people into homes.

I've been homeless, and know that the policy will fail without additional guidance. Homelessness isn't just about lack of a home. It can come from family breakdown, abuse, addiction and above all, mental health issues. We can't fix the crisis if we don't understand it.

As someone who has climbed out of homelessness and extreme poverty to now being a multi-millionaire, I am in a unique position to weigh in on the complexities of such a nuanced issue.

The solution isn't just about building homes, it needs to be about supporting homeless people's physical and mental health, and creating new lives—not just new apartments.

We can't afford to keep misdiagnosing the problem. We spend $35,578 per year on each homeless person, in the form of public services like jails, hospitalizations and emergency rooms.

Biden's approach, which will give state and federal governments access to grants to be spent on rent assistance and public housing before 2030, is another bill in a long line of federal assistance to end homelessness. Congress spent $2.8 billion on homeless assistance grants in 2020, which was a 6 percent increase on the year before. It didn't move the dial, but it made congressmembers and voters feel like they were doing something. Even if it was the wrong thing.

Like so many problems, the pandemic made homelessness worse. An estimated 580,466 Americans were on the street in 2020, a 2.2 percent increase from 2019.

According to a 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 45 percent of America's homeless had a serious mental illness. Similarly, HUD estimated that in 2019, 36 percent of the chronically homeless suffered from chronic substance abuse, a severe mental illness, or both.

Before we build homes for these people, we need to give them therapy and addiction treatment. Otherwise it will just be a Band-Aid because they still won't be able to hold down a job or contribute to society.

Too often, a homeless person placed in temporary housing loses it because of violent behavior or committing a drug-related offence.

The U.S. national flag hoisted
The U.S. national flag is hoisted at a Venice Beach homeless encampment on June 30, 2021, in Venice, Calif., where an initiative began offering people in homeless encampments a voluntary path to permanent housing. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Government policy should learn from neighborhood groups like the People Concern in Santa Monica, Calif., which offers supportive housing alongside mental health care, domestic violence interventions and substance abuse services.

A few years ago, they asked a local emergency room to discharge homeless people to them instead of back onto the streets. As a result of their service, the average hospital cost for members in the program dropped from $18,000 per patient to $5,000, and the number of days hospitalized dropped from six days a year to two. What's more, 92 percent of people supported by the People Concern never experienced homelessness again.

Investing money and services in a smart way works. A Florida study found that each homeless person costs the government approximately $31,000 a year, while providing both a house and a social worker would cost the state only $10,000, a 68 percent saving.

In Europe, the Housing First model works on the assumption that the government must solve the socio-economic problems that led to homelessness, as well as the homelessness itself.

Ninety-seven percent of the homeless people using the service in Amsterdam were still in their housing after a year. In Copenhagen, the rate was 94 percent overall and in Glasgow it was 92 percent.

There is a solution to homelessness, and it demonstrably works. The Biden administration, like others before it, misunderstands the causes and the ways out of homelessness. While they have their hearts in the right place, throwing money at a problem that is not fully understood is simply wasteful. We should treat homelessness as a symptom rather than a problem. Instead of enabling people, we should be equipping them.

A nonprofit I support, My Friend's Place, is creating wellness and self-sufficiency for people experiencing homelessness. It is that wellness and self-sufficiency that can free them of the causes, and not just the symptom, of homelessness.

If we are serious about creating a path out of homelessness, we need to be doing the same at a national level.

Matthew Gallagher is the founder and CEO of the world's largest watch club, Watch Gang, a community of watch lovers that has grown to over 1.8 million members.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.