What it takes to end homelessness – Nan Roman, President National Alliance to End Homelessness

This holiday season, as our thoughts turn to helping others, many of us will serve a meal, donate warm clothes, or volunteer at a shelter. These are all critically important activities that can make the difference between life and death for a person living on the street. But to end homelessness, we are going to have to do more.

Homelessness is an accepted feature of life in our nation, but it wasn’t always so. When I began working in the 1970s there was not widespread homelessness as we know it today. It’s not that people didn’t lose their housing or have nights when they didn’t have a place to stay.  There was plenty of poverty, unemployment, and untreated illness.

What has changed, most significantly, is that then people could earn enough money to keep a roof over their heads. Incomes were sufficient to pay for housing, and someone who lost their place to live could get back into an apartment right away. Today this is not the case, and some people who lose their housing become homeless, spending days, weeks or even years in shelter or on the street before they find a new place to live.

What has happened to change the income-housing equation? The story is well-known. On the income side, poor people’s wages have been stagnant and they struggle to find adequate work. Their ability to secure a job or earn an adequate wage may also be affected by increased rates of incarceration, and high rates of disability.

On the housing side, the supply of affordable units has dwindled. While there was sufficient housing in the 1970s, today we have seven million fewer affordable housing units than we need. While federal rent assistance can make housing affordable, only one in four eligible people receive it due to insufficient funding.

This income and housing mismatch means that two thirds of people who are poor spend over half of their incomes for rent, leaving too little for other essential needs like food and transportation. This is not sustainable, and some people become homeless.

So, while we must meet people’s crisis needs for a meal and a temporary shelter, we have to get to work on income and housing if we are going to end people’s homelessness.

Fortunately, tremendous progress has been made on the housing side. For the minority of homeless people who have chronic disabilities, permanent supportive housing solves the problem. This is housing in the community, with a subsidy attached so that it is affordable. Also provided are treatment or services to address the person’s disability and help keep them stable. It works, and chronic homelessness has been reduced by thirty percent since 2007.

For the majority of people, who are homeless primarily for economic reasons, a new intervention called rapid re-housing is showing excellent results. Rapid re-housing helps people who have had a housing crisis get back into housing quickly by providing housing-focused services and a few months of rental assistance. Of course more rental assistance would be better, but since there is not enough, even small amounts of assistance are effective in getting people back into a home.

There has been less progress on the income and employment side, even though they are critical. People who have disabilities need employment for a variety of reasons, not least to raise their incomes above the poverty level. Work also gives meaning and structure to their lives, providing a way for them to contribute, learn, and establish personal connections.

People who are economically homeless need work to pay for housing. While a short term rent subsidy may help someone quickly exit homelessness, eventually the person will have to pay the rent. Employment is the only way to do that, and to avert further episodes of homelessness.

While employment is key, the homelessness system has not done a good job of getting people into jobs. Much more must be done. Social enterprises like those supported by REDF can help us forge new pathways into the workforce for people who have been homeless.

A job and a place to live are the solutions to homelessness. They are essential to homeless people, as they are to all of us. So this year during the holiday season, we should continue to provide meals and volunteer at the shelter. But we must also be aware that homeless people need not only a roof over their heads, but a home. And they need the opportunity to contribute and connect through work. These are the solutions to homelessness, and something we all can support every day of the year.

– Nan Roman is President & CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The Alliance is a national policy, research and capacity-building organization focused on solutions to homelessness.