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Editorials

Housing Vouchers: A Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem

By Steve S. Li
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Last October, the Cambridge City Council decided to allocate Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds toward housing homeless individuals. The proposal is encouraging, perhaps even life-changing for a handful of individuals. The City Council seems increasingly committed to helping those experiencing homelessness in our area, and we commend it for doing so.

But a few dozen housing vouchers — a type of short-term, palliative measure — are insufficient. The city’s policies and vision should not be limited to just improving the immediate situation, even if such improvements are urgently needed. It ought to think big about how to build an economy and society that works for everyone.

Homelessness is a policy choice. It isn't some unavoidable and inescapable phenomenon or a fixed societal feature that we can only hope to mitigate. Rather, homelessness is the result of bad policies and politicians’ lackluster efforts to reimagine them in a comprehensive way. Active policy-making can help eradicate homelessness — other countries are already on track to do so. And so, even if preventing the currently vulnerable from slipping into homelessness is vital, the City Council must wrestle with the problem in its entirety. That means acknowledging that we've been facing this same humanitarian crisis for decades. A long-term, comprehensive plan to address it — including strengthening Cambridge's economy — is long overdue.

But what should be done in the meantime? How should the council reckon with the current crisis while seeking to address its root cause?

When it comes to short-term approaches, the coming months will prove crucial.

As the city is no doubt aware, winter is quickly approaching — a major concern for the homeless under normal conditions but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which homeless shelter capacity in the city has taken a hit. The Harvard Homeless Shelter continues to be closed, while others have taken on social distancing guidelines, which have forced them at times to turn away guests.

On Nov. 21, Middlesex County, with daily new cases on an upward climb, hit their highest number of new cases in a day since early June, and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that homeless individuals are a particularly vulnerable group. The safety of the homeless is urgent — quite literally vital with lives on the line.

Cambridge needs a plan for the coming months, and soon. Harvard should consider how it too can help. Last semester, Harvard and MIT teamed up to fund a temporary emergency shelter, collectively donating $500,000. We urge Harvard to commit a similar amount this winter, as a situation of even greater severity approaches.

Through its voucher program, the Cambridge City Council has demonstrated acknowledgment of the immediacy of the homelessness crisis. Indeed, research has underscored the efficacy of housing vouchers when it comes to mitigating the turmoils of homelessness, and we are excited to see this program get underway.

Still, this solution has its problems. First, voucher programs tend to be selective to an extent that may make them ineffective even once distributed to the neediest.

Second, in Cambridge, even from the outset the voucher program is not meeting the scale of the homelessness problem. It promises vouchers to between 40 and 45 individuals. That’s a small fraction of Cambridge’s substantial homeless population and may not even meet the total number of unsheltered people within that population.

Finally, and to our initial point, voucher programs, especially on such a small scale, are a stop-gap measure, not a systemic solution.

We’ve turned to discussing homelessness in Cambridge frequently this year, and we hope our pieces help spur deeper reflection about the needs and vulnerabilities of this population. That means both short-term care but also long-term reflection on the systemic injustices that produce homelessness in the first place.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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