More than half a million people in the U.S. experience homelessness on any given night: a humanitarian crisis in this country that demands our attention. But while many nonprofits, foundations and policymakers are working hard to address the issue, sustainable solutions have been a challenge to develop. That shouldn’t discourage us from trying: We can end homelessness by separating fact from fiction and examining the methods that work.
Why Do People Become Homeless?
FICTION: Homeless people can’t find work and are all on drugs.
FACT: There is no single hardship that leads directly to homelessness, but among the factors are poverty, scarcity of affordable housing, severe trauma (including domestic violence), mental illness or physical disabilities and personal crises. Yes, unemployment is a huge issue, but — according to the National Coalition for the Homeless — as many as 44 percent of homeless people have jobs: The major problem has been wage stagnation over the past decade. As for addiction, a misunderstanding about drug and alcohol abuse is that, while it is a problem for those in poverty, addictive disorders are often a result of homelessness rather than the cause.
How Bad is the Homelessness Problem?
FICTION: The homeless rate has gone down, so therefore we’re making great progress.
FACT: While there are some positive trends, the numbers are still alarming. Since 2007, the overall rate in homelessness has declined (17 per 10,000 people, the lowest for the U.S. on record). But from 2016 to 2017 (the latest national data available), unaccompanied children and young adults who were homeless increased by 14.3 percent, individuals experiencing chronic homelessness increased by 12.2 percent, and people living on the streets without access to any shelter increased by 9.4 percent. Meanwhile, cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York have all seen spikes in their homeless populations over the past few years.
It’s a good sign that most areas have reported decreases in the number of homeless veterans (Since 2009, veteran homelessness has declined by 46 percent), but we have a long way to go before we can declare any mission accomplished.
FICTION: Homelessness affects everybody equally.
FACT: Unstable housing affects minorities the most. African Americans occupy 40 percent of the homeless population (despite being only 13 percent of the general population) and LGBT+ youth experience double the risk of homelessness compared to their peers.
FICTION: Homelessness are mostly in cities and in low-income areas.
FACT: The high cost of living puts many more at risk, no matter where they are. Since 2007, there has been a 20 percent increase in the number of poor households that face a demanding home price burden (paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent). And in that same time period, all but three states saw an increase in low-income adults living with family or friends, which could be a step away from homelessness.
FICTION: Homeless people are all single individuals.
FACT: Many families in America experience homelessness. According to National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) data, about 34 percent of the homeless population are families, but there are vast differences if you go state by state, as this chart shows.
More Numbers to Know
What is a “point-in-time” count? This is an unduplicated count of the people in a homeless community on a single night. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that organizations which receive certain federal assistance funds do this count every other year, many communities perform them more frequently. The counts are mandated to occur during the last week of January, when most emergency shelters and housing programs are at-capacity. While transitional housing and sheltering programs typically report the demographics details of their clients, difficulties arise when documenting specific information about people who sleep outside, in tents or in vehicles. Many homeless people are hidden during winter months, and sample surveys help supplement census data collected during the often anonymous street-counts. HUD requires that each regional Continuum of Care (CoC) organizes its own count; therefore, the methodology, statistics reported, and their accuracy can vary across the United States.
How long does homelessness usually last? The vast majority of homeless people do get back on their feet over a relatively short amount of time, if they get support. But “chronic homelessness” refers to people who have been continuously (or repeatedly) homeless for at least a year, usually while coping with a debilitating mental or physical disability. On a single night in January 2017, there were 86,962 homeless individuals in the U.S. who met this criteria, and that represented 24 percent of the total population of homeless individuals. Nearly 70 percent of chronically homeless individuals were living on the street or other location unfit for habitation. While the number of individuals with patterns of chronic homelessness has declined 27 percent since 2007, there is more work to be done.
Which Homelessness Solutions Are Working?
Permanent supportive housing: This refers to affordable housing assistance that doesn’t have a time limit and also includes holistic interventions to help those in need. These are usually apartments (not shelters), many of which have professionals on site that can help people with job searches, medical treatment and other services. HUD credits a downward trend in chronic homelessness in part to the increase in permanent supportive housing beds (up 194 percent since 2007), so funding that boosts this method is essential. Meanwhile, the HUD-Veteran Affairs Supporting Housing program and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Supportive Services for Veteran Families program have helped eliminate veteran homelessness in three states, and reduced the trend in 36 states (along with D.C.). Both provide rapid housing support.
Rapid re-housing: Emergency services are important, but the goal should always be to get homeless individuals and family back in a more stable situation. That’s where rapid re-housing comes in. There are many groups across the U.S. that help people with move-in costs and short-term rental assistance, and statistics show that this route can be effective. HUD’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing program helped 1.15 million people over a two-year period.
Preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place: Strategies along these lines usually encompass any outreach effort that targets at-risk people, whether its short-term case management, programs that help formerly incarcerated people find jobs, military discharge planning, subsidies for those having a hard time making rent each month or paying their utility bills, and expanding access to social services. Examples include: Project HOME in Philadelphia, which empowers people to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness through adult learning centers, college access programs for teens, dental clinics and more.
Forming new alliances: In Seattle, the Landlord Liaison Project (designed by the YWCA) provides incentives and protections for landlords to rent out private market housing to homeless people, easing criteria that would ordinarily be a blocker. Since the program’s launch in 2009, 2,400 area homeless families and individuals have found permanent housing.
Ending silos: Along with the emergence of impact philanthropy to leverage philanthropic dollars toward causes in recent years, advanced partnerships have seen results. The Melville Charitable Trust initiated the aforementioned Funders Together to End Homelessness, which is approaching 200 members (Melville’s home state of Connecticut is also on track to be the first state in the U.S. to end chronic homelessness). In L.A., recent collaborations between the city and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation have addressed the growing crisis in the city.
Issue Area: Addressing Youth Homelessness
One study (cited by the Raikes Foundation), found that youth who are homeless often become homeless as adults — and that is the single largest pathway among this population, far outpacing causes such as mental health issues, substance abuse and housing crises. It’s also the longest-lasting and most entrenched homeless experience. Overall, one in 10 young adults ages 18-25, and at least one in 30 adolescents ages 13-17, experience some form of homelessness without a parent or guardian over the course of a year. Another sobering fact: LGBTQ+ homeless youth have almost twice the rate of early death than their peers.
What can we do about this? In addition to the work of Funders Together, there are at least two more organizations that should be on everyone’s radar: A Way Home America (which is building a national movement to end youth homelessness in the U.S. by the year 2020), and SchoolHouse Connection, a national organization committed to the belief that access to quality education can help guide children experiencing homelessness to a brighter future.
Meanwhile, Voices of Youth Count is on the frontlines of this battle, conducting biennial surveys to understand the scope of the problem. Among their recommendations: Tailor supports for rural youth experiencing homelessness to account for more limited service infrastructure over a larger terrain, develop strategies to address the disproportionate risk for homelessness among specific subpopulations (such as LGBTQ+ youth) and build prevention efforts in systems where young people are in our care, such as child welfare and juvenile justice.
Issue Area: Lack of Affordable Housing
A recent Governing magazine study of the top 50 cities in the U.S. found that 20 low-income neighborhoods experienced gentrification since 2000, compared to only 9 percent in the 1990s. This has resulted in skyrocketing home prices, families being displaced and higher competition for cheap housing. Tech hubs such as San Francisco and Seattle have grappled with a growing homelessness crisis, which has turned into states of emergency. With almost half of all renters spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing and about 40 percent of homeowners struggling to make mortgage payments, there seems to be no end to this problem.
What can we do about this? You’ll hear a lot about community land trusts, which are nonprofit housing systems that buy land and put it into a trust to make it more affordable in the long-term for low-income citizens. They even have accelerator programs to help scale them. Then there’s talk of more tiny home construction to help lower costs and carbon footprints, which has seen success in areas such as Olympia, WA. Housing First, a policy that gives those seeking stable housing an opportunity to acquire it with no strings attached, also shows promise (Albuquerque created a van program along these lines and saved the city money in the process).
But, as this article from YES! Magazine explains, there is no single solution: It may require a combination of many innovations. Meanwhile, the only entity with the finance to scale any sort of permanent impact is the government. Rent subsidies, block grants and other financing instruments that enable low-or-no-income people to afford a roof over their heads must be made more prevalent through federal and local policymaking. And it all must be connected to the next big issue at hand.
Issue Area: Confronting Racism and Equity
Over half of the country’s homeless population are people of color, across all age groups. In fact, black and Latino youth are 83 and 33 percent more likely to be homeless than their peers. A lack of access to high-wage jobs, over-incarceration and discriminatory housing practices all contribute to the root causes — and these require thoughtful solutions with an equity lens, not quick superficial fixes (like giving free one-way bus tickets out of town).
What can we do about this? Let’s first change the language we use when we talk about affordable housing, shifting narratives away from consumer choice, personal responsibility and “opportunity for all,” when the realities are much different for people of color. Then let’s put those words into action, with a systems-change approach in mind. As the Raikes Foundation wrote, this applies to minority youth especially, who need a stronger safety net system in place where they don’t exist. Philanthropic partnerships that listen to constituents and are backed by substantial data will help lead the way to substantial progress in this area.
Homelessness Organizations to Know
There are a wide range of organizations in the U.S. tackling the issue of homelessness, both at a local and national level. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it can serve as a guide in your research and impact giving.
- National Alliance to End Homelessness: A nonpartisan nonprofit that emphasizes data in the field.
- Funders Together to End Homelessness: A national network of funders that support strategic, impact solutions from the philanthropic world.
- Raikes Foundation: Working for an inclusive society with a focus on youth and impact philanthropy.
- National Coalition for Homeless Veterans: A nonprofit that aims to shape public policy and encourage collaboration among service providers.
- Urban Institute: A nonprofit research organization that uses facts to inform public policies and strengthen communities.
- Voices of Youth Count: A national initiative that aims to fill in the gaps in knowledge when it comes to youth homelessness in America through both new knowledge and existing evidence.
- A Way Home America: A collection of providers, researchers, philanthropists and advocates that aim to prevent homelessness among the nation’s youth.
- Melville Charitable Trust: Looking for lasting, proven and cost-effective solutions to homelessness.
- The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation: Working to change the lives of disadvantaged people around the world with approaches that emphasize diversity of people places and needs.
Ways You Can Work Toward Ending Homelessness
Give money to programs that work. Sounds simple, right? But these aren’t always easy to spot. One place to start is the Youth Homeless Fund, a Houston-based community impact fund that aims to address the problem of homelessness among young people through leadership, advocacy work, education and collaborative grantmaking.
Set bold goals. When organizations and communities set a target to reduce street homelessness, they usually succeed. Don’t just think about housing a few hundred people in a shelter; think about how thousands can get permanent supportive housing within a year.
Don’t get bogged down in politics. As we recently saw in Seattle with the proposed “head tax,” policies often come with a lot of complications. Rather than worry about whether government subsidies will be approved or not by a council, make sure that local initiatives on the ground get the support they need and find ways to bring people together in private-public partnerships (rather than drive them apart). It sometimes takes a village.
Know your numbers. Support research such as Voices of Youth Count (through Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago), which delivers concrete, reliable data on subgroups, while also delving into the details on which interventions have found success and which haven’t.
Spread the word. As Funders Together explains, “Grantmakers can fund grassroots and other nonprofit advocacy organizations to help create broad community support for housing-based solutions to homelessness.” And, to circle back around to the way we began, make sure to dispel the misconceptions that stifle change. The journey starts here, but it will continue until the homeless problem is eradicated once and for all.
Related Reading on Homelessness
There is a lot of information out there that will broaden your horizons on this topic. Here’s a look at other articles that will help you better understand the homelessness issue in the U.S.
- Learn why prioritizing homeless youth is essential.
- Find out how to change the narrative.
- Explore the crisis of the unsheltered population.
- Discover ways to help homeless veterans through philanthropy.
- Hear what funders are saying about racial equity and homelessness.
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