Ending homelessness in the U.S. is not only possible, but within reach. In fact, some communities are successfully working towards ending chronic homelessness. Community driven, inclusive responses in these cities are making chronic homelessness a rare, brief, and one-time occurrence.
However, not every community is close to this goal. A majority of cities in the U.S. are currently struggling with an increase in unhoused populations and are responding with emergency, temporary services.
To end homelessness, communities need to be able to identify persons most at risk of being unhoused, administer no-barrier services and shelter, and provide clear avenues to help the most vulnerable find and stay in housing long-term.
Once someone is housed, then they can begin to meet additional needs such as addressing their mental health, accessing healthcare, and finding job opportunities.
Where is the breakdown in how communities are approaching housing, and how can we move closer to ending homelessness across the U.S.?
What are the primary causes of homelessness?
The causes of homelessness are often multi-faceted and unique to each individual. In January 2020, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were 580,466 persons living unhoused in the U.S. While solutions to ending homelessness are not one-size fits all, each response does need to begin with stable housing before moving to eliminating root causes, providing services, and developing prevention strategies.
Health, Disability, and Mental Health
A leading cause of homelessness is health, often stemming from the high cost of receiving healthcare or the loss of a job due to poor health. When someone cannot work and loses their health insurance, they become responsible for the full cost of any treatment.
Healthcare and housing are deeply interconnected. Disability, chronic illness, mental health and trauma-related issues can worsen when someone loses housing, which makes finding services and permanent shelter even more difficult.
Income Compared to Cost of Living
A misconception about persons experiencing homelessness is that they are unemployed. This is simply not true. In May 2021, it was estimated that 40% of unhoused persons were employed while experiencing homelessness.
Despite working full or part-time jobs, many do not earn enough income to afford stable housing. This is most often seen in cities where housing and rental costs have risen rapidly over the past few years, including New York City, Boston, and Seattle. Meanwhile, wages remained the same or did not rise to meet the higher cost of living.
Exponential Housing Costs and Lack of Affordable Housing
Rent and utilities, already high before the pandemic, are increasing at rates unsustainable for people working lower-wage jobs. There is also an extreme lack of affordable rental units compared to the demand for housing.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports there is a shortage of 6.8 million rental homes available to low-income renters, and approximately 8 million households pay half of their income to remain housed. This adds further to instability.
Construction also slowed during the pandemic, which worsened the housing shortage. And though many communities are now back to building, they are often not building affordable units for someone in need of low-income housing.
The current justice system affects persons experiencing homelessness in two primary ways.
- After incarceration, it is difficult for someone to pass a background check in order to find a steady job. Rental units also require background checks, so many exiting the system find themselves without the means to both support and house themselves.
- Secondly, communities are also reacting to the current homelessness crisis out of fear. Many unsheltered persons face increasing criminal charges for panhandling, sleeping in cars, or sleeping in public. While these charges are not against homelessness, which itself is not a crime, the majority of persons harmed by these punitive laws are unhoused.
Racial Discrimination and Systemic Racism
The legacy of systemic racism in the U.S. is evident in the disproportionate number of persons of color experiencing homelessness. Higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and lack of access to critical healthcare contribute to homelessness. Racially-based, discriminatory housing practices, such as redlining, have also contributed to more Black, Latinx, indigenous persons, and other minorities living unsheltered.
One staggering statistic, quoted in an annual report on homelessness to Congress, states “people identifying as black or African American accounted for 39 percent of all people experiencing homelessness but are 12 percent of the total U.S. population.”
Ending Homelessness: What Strategies Can Help?
Ending Homelessness with Housing First
“Housing first” is an evidence-based solution that prioritizes helping individuals find stable, affordable shelter without barriers. It was first put into practice in New York City and grew out of permanent supportive housing, which began in the 1980s.
Permanent supportive housing combines rental assistance with much-needed services for the most vulnerable, such as individuals and families experiencing homelessness who have severe mental illness, disability, or other physical or behavioral health conditions.
The guiding principle of ‘housing first’ is to eliminate barriers and requirements for chronically homeless persons to receive stable and permanent housing. When housing is a priority, it is much easier to maintain treatment plans without the added stress of being unhoused. It is also one of the most effective forms of ending homelessness, with faster placements and high retention rates compared to other solutions.
Organizations such as “Built for Zero” are on their way to helping cities turn homelessness from a chronic condition to a rarity using this model. Rockford, Illinois is one such city that is effectively ending what they call “functional” homelessness, by focusing on housing, public health, and prevention.
Two key factors in their approach to ending homelessness were data and personalization, identifying and creating a list of names of chronically homeless individuals in Rockford. Putting names to faces not only gave case managers a personal connection, but also allowed them to target individual needs faster and reduce the chance someone would become homeless again.
Leaders in Rockford’s city council, nonprofits, and service providers learned to work together over time to best meet the needs of the unhoused in their community and achieve lasting change. Instead of reacting to a crisis, they learned to become proactive to prevent functional homelessness.
Permanent Supportive Housing
Some of the most well-known supportive housing programs are federally funded, such as housing choice vouchers, more commonly known as Section 8 housing. Vouchers are also an effective solution to homelessness that provides low-income individuals and families with regular rental assistance to pay for housing. Though there is evidence to prove its success, the program as a whole is underfunded and struggles with long waiting lists.
Rapid re-housing is another successful program focused on housing and services, but it only provides short-term housing assistance. Ultimately, in many cities, there are not enough low income or subsidized rental units available to meet current needs. Many folks are still using programs such as emergency shelters or transitional housing while waiting for their chance for more stable, permanent housing.
Homelessness Prevention and Wraparound Services
The goal of ending homelessness is to turn it into a rare, brief, and one-time occurrence. To do so, we cities require ready-to-go prevention programs. Instead of responding only to crises, we need to shift to long-term, preventive measures.
For instance, this may look like setting up housing interventions when someone leaves prison, the foster care system, or the military without a permanent place to live. Meeting needs even earlier looks like providing resources and education to foster youth on getting a job and the housing services they can access before exiting the system.
Mental health services, disability services, public education, local nonprofits, and landlords must work together to deliver whole-person, lasting solutions.
Houston and San Diego are real-time examples of what happens when a city focuses on coordination and long-term care versus uncoordinated, short-term focused solutions. San Diego focused on emergency responses and built more temporary shelters to decrease the number of people experiencing homelessness by 19%. Houston, on the other hand, overhauled its entire response to homelessness, increased collaboration with response teams and service providers, and invested in permanent, affordable housing. The result? Houston “cut homelessness by more than half (55%).”
Building Public Support for Ending Homelessness
Communities must also come together to combat NIMBY-ism, more formally known as “not in my backyard.” This happens when residents oppose building affordable housing in their neighborhood. Fear of crime and the unknown effects of adding a new development are often the root causes behind their resistance. Taking the time to educate and share resources about the long-term positive impacts of affordable housing in community forums can alleviate these concerns.
Ending Homelessness is Within Reach
Ending homelessness so it is only a brief, rare, and one-time occurrence is possible, but requires funding, coordination, and additional affordable housing units. We must turn our focus from short to long-term solutions—becoming proactive and not reactive—and learn from communities who are leading the way.