Anna Davidson Abella

Securing safe and affordable housing in Florida is quickly becoming a luxury. Anyone who hasn’t experienced this first-hand in the past couple of years has at least heard about this crisis or knows somebody who has been affected. Florida even made national news for its housing crisis, with Orlando, Miami and Tampa called out for having some of the fastest-rising rents in the country.

While it is evident that rent, in particular, is consuming a higher percentage of Floridians’ paychecks, many people don’t see the effect this housing crisis has on the state’s social service infrastructure. Social services are supports that provide some of our most vulnerable citizens with pathways to better lives, including programs that help parents avoid child maltreatment and help people with serious mental illness avoid unnecessary involvement with the criminal justice system. But as housing prices continue to rise, the ability of our social service infrastructure to help is eroding.

Secure housing is often a basic requirement of these services. Without it, these programs can’t succeed.

Take the example of parents who have child maltreatment allegations. Many of these individuals also have other needs, such as mental health and/or substance use treatment. At the same time, they also have to complete parenting education classes, maintain steady employment and ensure a safe environment for their children.

In many cases, all of these services will be met, but the parents are unable to afford an apartment for their family. In fact, in my ongoing research, case managers are telling me that their tried-and-true solutions for helping families find housing are rapidly disappearing. If the housing requirement cannot be met, families will stay in the child welfare system for longer than necessary. The stress they face with not being able to have a stable home may trigger relapses of substance use or mental health crises.

Further, there are many efforts throughout Florida to help individuals with untreated mental health conditions avoid interaction with law enforcement. There is a disproportionately high number of people with mental illness in jails and prisons, and this is partly a result of a poor mental health service infrastructure that makes it very difficult to get help when needed.

Jail diversion programs give law enforcement officers a direct link to a team of professionals who can help individuals with mental health and related needs, including psychiatric care and counseling, substance use treatment, employment, transportation and housing. However, housing has become the thorn in case managers’ side. It is often the lone resource that prevents clients from successfully completing their treatment plans after many months of working towards improving their circumstances. Without housing, people are more likely to return to negative coping patterns that first led to involvement with law enforcement.

If fundamental resources aren’t available, then social services professionals cannot do their jobs. Case managers and licensed clinical social workers already do emotionally intensive work that is arguably undervalued.

The caseloads and turnover rates for these positions are classically high. Asking them to work in a field where they can’t access the basic resources they need is equivalent to asking a carpenter to build a house without a hammer. This severe gap will only add to the systemwide problems facing social services.

The lesson that housing is a primary need is not new. This idea was popularized 80 years ago with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which suggests that the need for shelter must be met before other psychological, relational, and self-fulfillment needs can be met (in other words, the things that help us to function well). We are now seeing the realities of what happens when the bottom of the pyramid is not robust enough to support the middle or the top.

Florida policymakers have not prioritized measures to make sure every citizen can have their basic needs met. In fact, there is a bitter irony in seeing luxury high rises being built at lightning speed while many policymakers avoid or outright reject efforts to control or stabilize rent.

How we view housing access and affordability in Florida says a lot about how we view opportunity and equality for all people in the state — it is a measure of a state’s ability to ensure basic needs are met. Given the dismal situation we face today, we clearly need to do better.

Anna Davidson Abella is an assistant research professor in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences at the University of South Florida and conducts research and evaluation in areas of mental health, child welfare, and prevention services. She is a member of the Florida Scholars Strategy Network chapter.