The most recent data on homelessness reveals that while it is on the decline nationally, some of the nation’s most populous states have seen huge increases. But that’s not because we don’t know what is effective in fighting homelessness. Addressing income inequality and the nation’s affordable housing crisis are critical steps in ending homelessness.
Today, most households become homeless because of financial circumstances that prevent them from paying their rent. The availability of low-cost housing has been declining over decades. In 1970, there were 300,000 more low-cost rental units than low-income renter households — or 6.5 million units for 6.2 million households. By 1985, there was an affordable housing shortfall of 3.3 million units. And by 2011, the affordable housing shortage reached 5.3 million units. Further, only one in four households eligible for rental subsidies today actually receives assistance due to the overwhelming demand, forcing many families onto lengthy waiting lists.
To make matters worse, housing prices have increased faster than incomes. In fact, almost half of homeless people in this country work but do not earn enough income to pay for housing.
So what can be done? I recently authored a report for the Center for American Progress that outlines a number of measures that target the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness:
Align homeless and mainstream services: While resources targeted specifically at homeless people are critical in addressing the specific needs of individuals and families experiencing a bout of homelessness, communities should consider the many ways mainstream resources, such as Medicaid or Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), can enhance those efforts, as these programs are designed to help lift people out of poverty. The Utah Department of Workforce Services, for example, has co-located staff at a nonprofit social services agency called The Road Home that assists individuals and families experiencing homelessness. They work together to help families get connected to benefits and provide intensive employment services to find jobs quickly. In addition, the Department also provides TANF resources to cover the first four months of families’ rents while they search for employment.
Support the financing of affordable housing: Studies show that families who are rapidly rehoused are more likely to stay in a home 12 months after exiting homelessness than families who have to rely on temporary shelter before securing permanent housing. Further, strategies focused on permanent housing tend to be more cost-effective than relying on shelters. As the housing market continues to recover from the 2008 crisis, Congress is seeking to reform the housing finance system and could ensure that the new system provides financing to preserve the existing privately owned, affordable housing stock and support the construction of new affordable units. Through the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, the federal government helps provide such financing, which is not always available in the purely private market. The new system could continue to guarantee multifamily securities, sharing risk with the private sector as it does now, and ensure that a significant portion of this financing goes toward affordable units.
Increase economic stability and address income inequality: In order to help lift people out of poverty and avoid homelessness, families and individuals need access to jobs that pay well and support during an unforeseen crisis, such as a medical emergency or being laid off. A number of policies would help address income inequality and help families at risk of facing homelessness, such as protecting effective work and income supports, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), from cuts; investing in job-creation measures, such as the Pathways Back to Work Fund that creates subsidized work opportunities for low-income and long-term unemployed workers; and boosting the minimum wage and enacting basic labor standards, such as guaranteed paid sick days.
The central tenet of the federal plan to end homelessness is the belief that no individual or family should ever experience the instability of living without a home. Now more than ever, communities understand what strategies work to prevent homelessness, but these efforts are hindered by stagnant wages, higher rents, and the whittling down of our safety net. If we truly believe that no one should experience homelessness, we must continue to invest in preventative measures now in order to avoid the higher costs associated with crisis interventions down the road.