How to Address Homelessness: Reflections from Research
Cover of Volume 693 of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
In the latest issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Katherine O’Regan, Ingrid Gould Ellen, and Sophie House surveyed existing research–including several articles in the special, homlessness-focused volume of The ANNALS in which their commentary was published–that tackles the question of how to prevent and eradicate homelessness in the United States. The review highlights how new research developments can facilitate a shift towards "upstream," or preventative, homelessness interventions, while making necessary "downstream" emergency services more equitable and effective. With a critical eye toward the creation and perpetuation of racial disparities, the article examines four categories of policy responses: addressing root causes, preventing homelessness, providing services, and facilitating sustained exits from homelessness, which this post, too, will examine in turn.
A central finding of the review is that current research illustrates the importance of structural, or macro, causes of homelessness, and the need for policy responses that ameliorate high housing costs, low incomes, and income inequality. A compelling body of evidence increasingly shows that structural interventions–like access to long-term housing subsidies–improve future housing stability (Rog et al. 2021; Gubits et al. 2018). Likewise, income support policies designed to reduce poverty also reduce the risk of homelessness (particularly cash assistance like TANF). Lastly, income inequality specifically (not just low incomes) exacerbates the likelihood of homelessness: interventions that address big-picture inequality, not just income supports, are therefore necessary (Byrne et al., 2021). This macro perspective contrasts with a historical tendency to treat homelessess as a result of micro-level, individual social and behavioral challenges. Policy approaches focused on the structural root causes of homelessness might prioritize progressive zoning and tax regimes, equity in access to childcare and education, initiatives to encourage savings, target debt relief, and/or augment the social safety net. As these wide ranging policy recommendations illustrate, unlike “downstream” services, big, broad solutions are necessary to prevent and eradicate homelessness.
Preventing families from experiencing homelessness in the first place both avoids the associated trauma and also reduces the strain on downstream services that presently exists. Prevention, though, first requires accurate targeting of people and places vulnerable to housing instability and eviction. Some researchers have advocated for tracking landlords who are most likely to evict tenants, so that localities can conduct targeted outreach to landlords (to help with financial assistance or code compliance, for example) and/or tenants (for rental assistance and/or to provide connections to legal services) (Rutan and Desmond, 2021). Vulnerable renters or homeowners can be identified using predictive models and integrated data systems, which have efficacy in Los Angeles and New York (von Watcher et al., 2019; Collinson and Reed, 2017). On a broader scale, cities might consider offering landlord-tenant mediation programs, or creating registries of building ownership so that if a concentration of evictions or shelter applications from a particular building is identified, officials can proactively reach out to residents of other buildings owned by the same landlord (Rutan and Desmond, 2021).
Another key upstream strategy involves effective discharge planning. This is particularly pertinent to formerly incarcerated people and young people aging out of the foster care system, where housing needs are foreseeable and obstacles are predictable (Schneider 2018; Dworsky et al. 2019). (Because these populations are disproportionately made up of people of color, discharge planning also forestalls compounding racial inequality.) More specifically, people leaving incarceration often are not adequately served by short-term planning, and instead would benefit from longer-term housing outreach and engagement (Remster, 2021). Coordination challenges between agencies (e.g., hospitals and housing) often prevent effective discharge planning (Greysen et al. 2012). Consequently, the authors maintain that state and federal policymakers must provide institutions with the resources necessary to design effective discharging planning, and furthermore hold them to account should they fail to do so.
Providing Emergency Shelter
Homelessness policymakers need to radically rethink the homeless shelter as an institution. Emergency shelter will remain a critical component among a menu of services, but the authors question its primacy, and highlight existing challenges. For example, it has been and will remain difficult to integrate emergency shelter services into neighborhoods. Moreover, without deep investments to generate community buy-in, local opposition can create dynamics that compromise the delivery of services even after shelters are sited. One article in this volume focused on shelters in San Francisco neighborhoods, noting that facilities “increasingly shifted from addressing the needs of homeless individuals to addressing the needs of residents, businesses, and politicians” and ultimately fell short of its original goals of addressing local unsheltered homelessness (Herring, 2021).
Although it will be difficult, shifting policy efforts away from an emphasis on shelters is paramount to preventing and eradicating homelessness. Housing First, voucher-based, and supportive housing models offer more sustainable solutions. Research has long shown that housing subsidies are the most effective mechanism to shorten families’ and individuals’ stays in shelters (Gubits et al. 2018). In addition to subsidies, shifting away from shelter-centric service provision will require connecting a broad array of state and local agencies. Federal officials might provide financial incentives to usher in this transition. Where shelters do remain, neighborhood resistance to siting shetlers (along with resistance to affordable housing and permanent supportive housing) must be combatted via direct, sustained, intentional, locally-attuned engagement with community members and stakeholders (John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Fortune Society, 2017). To aid in this process, researchers should equip policymakers with evidence of the benefits of affordable housing and, just as importantly, the lack of evidence that shelters reduce surrounding property values (Furman Center, 2008). Similarly, state and local governments might institute “fair share” policies that require all communities to harbor some responsibility for housing the most vulnerable among us.
In order to craft equitable and effective responses to homelessness, we must understand and confront the system inequities embedded within it. Namely, people who are Black, Latinx, and Native American are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness, and this downstream reality is a product of other upstream disparities in wealth and income, incarceration, representation in the foster care system, and access to housing credit (connected to decades of redlining and exclusionary zoning), among many others. All future homelessness policies must grapple with this reality, and make efforts to achieve a more equitable housing landscape.