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Homelessness in America: Confronting the Stalemate

Every year with the coming of winter, new attention focuses on the problem of homelessness in America. This week’s photojournalism essay by The New York Times places American homelessness on par with some of the worst slums in the world. Even our president has called homelessness a “disgrace to our country.”

It is important to put the current visible challenges in American cities in the context of trends, the entire complex of homelessness (including rural), and current public policy. Perhaps even more than other social problems, homelessness is enormously complex in its causes, solutions, and split governmental responsibilities. There is some good news in the larger picture, and there are many good people working extremely hard to make progress. Yet in broad strokes we have a national stalemate. Little progress is being made overall, and some areas are experiencing extraordinary increases.

The most visible cities with surging real estate prices – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin, Washington, DC – have epic affordable housing and homelessness problems. Natural disasters have displaced significant numbers and concentrated migrants in particular communities. But homelessness is a truly national problem with small city, suburban, exurban, and rural variants that need more systematic attention and response.


It is obviously difficult to count and document homelessness. Over thirty years ago I participated in a national survey research conference on “counting the uncountable” where homelessness was treated as the paradigmatic case of an impossible empirical challenge. Identifying homeless populations is intrinsically difficult: different agencies and organizations utilize different definitions, and there are wicked underlying incentives and advocacy reasons to either understate or overstate the problem.

The standard data come each year from something called the “point in time” (PIT) survey, required by HUD, which happens in major cities in January and attempts to count sheltered and unsheltered people.

Researchers, legal and service providers, and advocacy groups roundly criticize the HUD PIT data, often relying on alternative sources of information such as the number of homeless children and youth in schools, the number of people who are invisible or do not fall into HUD’s definitions, or administrative sources. Service providers and advocates have argued that the PIT data may under-report homelessness by up to a factor of 10.

By HUD’s definition, an unsheltered homeless person is living “in a place not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings (on the street).” A sheltered homeless person resides in an emergency shelter, or transitional housing or supportive housing designated for homeless persons. The Continuums of Care (COCs), the provider networks for homeless services, also carry out a companion study, the Housing Inventory Count (HIC), which attempts to estimate the supply of beds available for the homeless population at a point in time. By contrast, HHS uses a much more expansive definition, essentially anyone who lacks housing.

The most recent PIT study documents 550,000 homeless residents in 2018, almost 200,000 of the those unsheltered. Almost 100,000 were counted as chronically homeless, more than 110,000 had severe mental illness, almost 40,000 were veterans, and 36,000 were unaccompanied youth. The companion HIC survey identified 24,000 beds for the homeless population in 2018.

As a comparison, the Chapin Hall/Voices of Youth Count study identified 1.3 million homeless children and youth alone, using different methods and definitions of homelessness.

Different surveys also indicate different trends in homelessness, with some showing increases and some (including PIT) showing declines over time.

Functional Zero

Many cities, regions, and states have embarked on ambitious initiatives to essentially eliminate homeless either in its entirety or among certain subpopulations such as chronically homeless, veterans, or youth. Conceptually, reaching “functional zero” in a place or in a population means that homelessness is “rare and brief,” though more technical definitions exist for specific populations. The overall movement, known as “Built for Zero” and shepherded by an organization called Community Solutions , implements a method that is data-driven and ultimately concentrates on addressing the circumstances of each homeless individual, by name, on a list. Eleven cities claim to have eliminated homelessness among veterans or the chronically homeless by this method. Eighty-five cities are participating in this movement.

The most famous case of overreach is the State of Utah’s claim that it had eliminated chronic homelessness. The state made a substantial effort to address mental health and addictions, as well as increase permanent and supportive housing options. The Utah claim has since been retracted, as evidence of ongoing homelessness, definitional changes, and other explanations for their reported results have surfaced.

Nationally, the mayors of New York and Los Angeles have made a splash with their (perceived ill-fated) homeless initiatives. Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles has called homelessness “the humanitarian crisis of our lives.” The City of Los Angeles has allocated $1.2 billion for housing for homeless and low-income residents (Proposition HHH); the County of Los Angeles has committed several billions over the next decade (Measure H); and the State of California is committing more billions for services and rental assistance for low income and homeless residents. Nonetheless, the situation is so dire in California that there are calls to create a state-of-emergency for homelessness. The perception is that Garcetti is losing ground, and Governor Newsom has lost the war.

Mayor de Blasio of New York made homelessness a signature initiative of his administration through appointments and budget priorities. The New York City strategy included expanding shelter beds, legal assistance for evictions, and incentives and requirements for developers to create affordable housing options. One criticism of de Blasio’s strategy was that it emphasized shelters and housing set-asides for developers over social service approaches. As it has played out, there are many recriminations that New York has actually experienced increases in homelessness during his mayoral  regime, whatever the logic and success of its individual parts.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of these efforts and claims to “eliminate” homelessness has been negative backdraft that occurs when efforts come up short, for whatever reason. Politicians especially do not want to be associated with efforts that are perceived to have failed, even if the overall outcomes have been resoundingly proportional and positive. Significantly improving homelessness or “almost” eliminating homelessness in certain places or populations is a good thing. In many cases, the pursuit of an absolute goal of eliminating homelessness has focused disparate efforts, generated new resources, and and motivated agencies. It is unfortunate however, that when these absolute goals have not achieved absolute success, what follows has been increased cynicism, backsliding on effort and resources, and even recriminations. Often, the press has not helped.

Initiatives Everywhere

No shortage of policies and programs exists at every level: federal, state, local, community. Still, bureaucratic turf, competing ideologies of best homelessness practice, and NIMBY problems limit political support, cooperation, and scaling of interventions that work. In any location, the web of housing, social service, government, and advocacy groups that are invested and relevant to implementing solutions is daunting. Veterans programs differ from youth programs, differ from criminal justice programs, and differ from school-based programs for children and youth. Mental health and substance use services are in short supply and disconnected from housing. Mostly, nobody is really in charge.

What is to be Done

My experience with colleagues on the St. Louis Area Regional Commission on Homelessness has taught me a great deal about the effort, expertise, and collaboration which exists on-the-ground to address specific challenges of homelessness for specific populations, such as veterans, youth, or ex-offenders. The work of many social service providers is nothing short of heroic, but the resources available and political support is embarrassing. Living in downtown St. Louis and participating on this Commission has raised my awareness of  how much more needs to be done. Every night when I am walking in St. Louis City, I encounter so many people sleeping outside and struggling to survive. The larger answer is not individual support, but rather systemic and policy solutions that address this unacceptable situation in so many parts of the country.

  • Legislate/implement what already exists. On the board is languishing federal legislation (e.g., The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act), evidence-based health and housing programs (e.g., Housing First and Rapid Re-housing), and state legislation, as well as regional and local initiatives that simply need to be implemented and sufficiently-resourced.
  • Collective Action needs to be incentivized and organized. Because funding streams and government responsibility is so balkanized, it is hard to orchestrate the kinds of coordinated and organized approaches on the ground that are necessary. Philanthropy could produce big gains with relatively small investments that support collective and regional approaches.
  • Housing policy is not enoughThe success and evidence of “housing-first” models of intervention has led to an imbalance in programs and support systems. The support system of case management, treatment for mental health and addiction, employment, health care, etc. is often under-represented when the social service model and priority is to respond to urgent and needed housing solutions.
  • Counter-marketing the problem and solutions is necessaryHomelessness is visible. Solutions are not. We exist in a media and social media environment that pushes important social policy challenges out of view, emphasizes the negative story, and discounts solutions that cost money or are not simple. We need to counter the imagery of homelessness in America. Homelessness needs a counter-strategy that emphasizes the feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and social benefits of success. The idea is not to whitewash the problem, but alternatively to recognize that there are interventions that work, are affordable, and need broad public awareness.

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