Solving homelessness for people living unsheltered, in encampments, and in vehicles is one of the most challenging issues facing many communities. It was a public health crisis even before the pandemic, and it is growing right in front of our eyes.

Elected leaders are grappling over difficult choices with limited resources: Should they invest in lifesaving crisis response services and temporary shelter, or in long-term permanent housing and support services? Ultimately, we must do both at the same time and at the right scale to make a clear, measurable, sustainable impact that results in more people living in safe, affordable homes.

The out-in-the-open nature of unsheltered homelessness has created intense division among elected officials, neighbors, housing and social service providers, advocates, the business and faith communities, and people experiencing homelessness who often have nowhere else to go. Such a charged environment can lead to finger-pointing and blame. Elected leaders face demands for swift action, but real solutions take time and money. We hear many communities say they are tired of reacting to the crisis with expensive, short-term responses driven by political pressure or litigation. Instead, they want to engage in intentional, strategic, regional conversations that lead to productive collaboration, mutual investment, and fewer people experiencing the trauma of homelessness.

While unsheltered homelessness is not new, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated it. The pandemic also magnified the vital ties between health care and housing. When shelters had to reduce capacity by half to mitigate the spread of the virus, and while rehousing efforts stalled almost overnight, encampments in many cities multiplied, filling sidewalks, and spilling into streets and parks. Staff of outreach teams, shelters, and drop-in centers were exhausted and spread thin. The quick response by public health to go into the field and provide needed supplies, education, and services highlighted the cross-systems partnerships needed to comprehensively address homelessness.

There is not a single community in the country that has implemented a perfect system to solve unsheltered homelessness. There are, however, emerging practices around collaboration, outreach, shelter, supportive services, and housing that are leading to success.

Read the full article about unsheltered homelessness by Katy Miller at United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.