• Main content

Why mental health and social services are as crucial as physical shelter to address the homelessness crisis

  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and cohost of the " Pitchfork Economics " podcast.
  • He spoke with Josephine Ensign, a professor and former policy worker, about the homelessness crisis.
  • Ensign says social services are critical to address the mental health needs of unhoused people.

Insider Today

It's difficult to even begin to have a conversation about homelessness in America anymore.

Even in progressive cities like Seattle and San Francisco, coverage of our historically high levels of homelessness has become so hyperpartisanized that it's impossible for people to agree on the causes of the housing crisis, let alone work together to find solutions. Where some people see homelessness as strictly an economic failure, others position each case of homelessness as an individual failure, blaming it on untreated mental illness or a drug addiction problem. 

Let's be clear that simply building large amounts of housing will not solve our housing crisis, as some urbanists claim. But neither is homelessness a personal failing free from systemic economic pressures. A Zillow study from 2017 found that homelessness increases in cities where rents exceed a third of the average income, and each rent increase of $100 is associated with a corresponding jump in homelessness of anywhere from 6% to 32%. Given that median rents in some cities have skyrocketed by up to 91% over the past decade, that's a minimum of tens of thousands of Americans who are being pushed out into the street for the first time every year. 

University of Washington Professor Josephine Ensign joined the "Pitchfork Economics" podcast to discuss her 40-year career working with homeless populations around the world as a researcher, nurse, and policy worker. Her latest book, " Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homelessness in an American City ," specifically explores the history of homelessness in Seattle.

How did we get to a point when nearly every American city is dotted with tent encampments? Ensign cites the "steady defunding of [Department of Housing and Urban Development] services, in terms of support for low-income housing redevelopments" that has taken place through the latter half of the 20th century, as well as "the gentrification of inner city areas that have displaced, especially, persons of color and people living intergenerationally in poverty," and the "deinstitutionalization of people with pretty severe mental health issues and developmental issues" that took place in the late '70s and throughout the '80s.

In short, there's no one smoking gun to point to as the root cause of America's homelessness crisis. Instead, a wide array of policy failures, worsened by American leaders' 40-year love affair with trickle-down austerity, have led to this moment. (For proof, consider the fact that European nations with robust social safety nets don't have the same growing number of unhoused people as we do.)

A universal healthcare system alone would resolve many of the issues that push Americans onto the streets, and which exacerbate their problems once they're on the street.

With rents and housing prices rising astronomically, we obviously need much more affordable housing in American cities right now. It's cheaper to house homeless people than it is to put them through the endless piecemeal cycle of homeless shelters and triage services that cost taxpayers somewhere between $30,000 and $80,000 per homeless person per year . But the fact is that physical shelter needs are only part of the problem. 

"It's not just a problem with inadequate low income and supportive housing," Ensign said. "It is also the sense of belonging, the sense of community, the community supports in terms of health and social services, that are needed for people to be safe and healthy and happy in low-income and long-term permanent housing." 

People experience trauma before they're forced into homelessness, and they experience trauma while they're homeless. If we don't have systems in place to address that emotional damage, homeless populations will continue to rise.

So what would Ensign do if she could establish policies to ameliorate homelessness in a major American city? "The biggest thing that I would fund is ongoing supportive services in shelters and day shelters and outreach programs," she said, including high-quality mental health and substance abuse programs for homeless families and individuals, "because if they're not quality, if they're not sustainable, it actually does more harm than good for people trying to become more stable in housing and health."

"With quick interventions and appropriate counseling and treatment for the child and for the family," Ensign said, those traumas "can be overcome and can actually become sources of strength." 

how to solve the problem of homelessness

How to solve homelessness – lessons from around the world

Homelessness is on the rise around the world.

There are an estimated 150 million homeless people worldwide. Some organizations are offering innovative solutions to the problem. Image:  Unsplash/Jon Tyson

.chakra .wef-1c7l3mo{-webkit-transition:all 0.15s ease-out;transition:all 0.15s ease-out;cursor:pointer;-webkit-text-decoration:none;text-decoration:none;outline:none;color:inherit;}.chakra .wef-1c7l3mo:hover,.chakra .wef-1c7l3mo[data-hover]{-webkit-text-decoration:underline;text-decoration:underline;}.chakra .wef-1c7l3mo:focus,.chakra .wef-1c7l3mo[data-focus]{box-shadow:0 0 0 3px rgba(168,203,251,0.5);} Sean Fleming

how to solve the problem of homelessness

.chakra .wef-9dduvl{margin-top:16px;margin-bottom:16px;line-height:1.388;font-size:1.25rem;}@media screen and (min-width:56.5rem){.chakra .wef-9dduvl{font-size:1.125rem;}} Explore and monitor how .chakra .wef-15eoq1r{margin-top:16px;margin-bottom:16px;line-height:1.388;font-size:1.25rem;color:#F7DB5E;}@media screen and (min-width:56.5rem){.chakra .wef-15eoq1r{font-size:1.125rem;}} Cities and Urbanization is affecting economies, industries and global issues

A hand holding a looking glass by a lake

.chakra .wef-1nk5u5d{margin-top:16px;margin-bottom:16px;line-height:1.388;color:#2846F8;font-size:1.25rem;}@media screen and (min-width:56.5rem){.chakra .wef-1nk5u5d{font-size:1.125rem;}} Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale

Stay up to date:, cities and urbanization, have you read, this scottish café chain has built a village for the homeless, this is the critical number that shows when housing breaks down, making affordable housing a reality in cities.

Decommission vehicle into sleeping arrangement

Example of Change Please Coffee van

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:

The agenda .chakra .wef-n7bacu{margin-top:16px;margin-bottom:16px;line-height:1.388;font-weight:400;} weekly.

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

.chakra .wef-1dtnjt5{display:-webkit-box;display:-webkit-flex;display:-ms-flexbox;display:flex;-webkit-align-items:center;-webkit-box-align:center;-ms-flex-align:center;align-items:center;-webkit-flex-wrap:wrap;-ms-flex-wrap:wrap;flex-wrap:wrap;} More on Cities and Urbanization .chakra .wef-17xejub{-webkit-flex:1;-ms-flex:1;flex:1;justify-self:stretch;-webkit-align-self:stretch;-ms-flex-item-align:stretch;align-self:stretch;} .chakra .wef-nr1rr4{display:-webkit-inline-box;display:-webkit-inline-flex;display:-ms-inline-flexbox;display:inline-flex;white-space:normal;vertical-align:middle;text-transform:uppercase;font-size:0.75rem;border-radius:0.25rem;font-weight:700;-webkit-align-items:center;-webkit-box-align:center;-ms-flex-align:center;align-items:center;line-height:1.2;-webkit-letter-spacing:1.25px;-moz-letter-spacing:1.25px;-ms-letter-spacing:1.25px;letter-spacing:1.25px;background:none;padding:0px;color:#B3B3B3;-webkit-box-decoration-break:clone;box-decoration-break:clone;-webkit-box-decoration-break:clone;}@media screen and (min-width:37.5rem){.chakra .wef-nr1rr4{font-size:0.875rem;}}@media screen and (min-width:56.5rem){.chakra .wef-nr1rr4{font-size:1rem;}} See all

how to solve the problem of homelessness

How Kiel became a pioneering Zero Waste City, and what it can teach the rest of the world

Victoria Masterson

November 8, 2023

how to solve the problem of homelessness

Governing Smart Cities: Use Cases for Urban Transformation

how to solve the problem of homelessness

This small Finnish city is showing the world how to become carbon neutral

Adele Peters

November 6, 2023

how to solve the problem of homelessness

World Cities Day: how 7 leaders are balancing the nexus between urban growth and equity

Nalisha Men

October 31, 2023

how to solve the problem of homelessness

Ground-breaking urban public-private collaborations and other city-focused stories you need to read

Lisa Chamberlain

October 25, 2023

how to solve the problem of homelessness

The EU just released a new declaration on cycling: Here's what it means for net-zero

Johnny Wood

October 24, 2023

  • Pre-Markets
  • U.S. Markets
  • Cryptocurrency
  • Futures & Commodities
  • Funds & ETFs
  • Health & Science
  • Real Estate
  • Transportation
  • Industrials

Small Business

Personal Finance

  • Financial Advisors
  • Options Action
  • Buffett Archive
  • Trader Talk
  • Cybersecurity
  • Social Media
  • CNBC Disruptor 50
  • White House
  • Equity and Opportunity
  • Business Day Shows
  • Entertainment Shows
  • Full Episodes
  • Latest Video
  • CEO Interviews
  • CNBC Documentaries
  • CNBC Podcasts
  • Digital Originals
  • Live TV Schedule
  • Trust Portfolio
  • Trade Alerts
  • Meeting Videos
  • Homestretch
  • Jim's Columns
  • Stock Screener NEW!
  • Market Forecast
  • Options Investing

Credit Cards

Credit Monitoring

Help for Low Credit Scores

All Credit Cards

Find the Credit Card for You

Best Credit Cards

Best Rewards Credit Cards

Best Travel Credit Cards

Best 0% APR Credit Cards

Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards

Best Cash Back Credit Cards

Best Credit Card Welcome Bonuses

Best Credit Cards to Build Credit

Find the Best Personal Loan for You

Best Personal Loans

Best Debt Consolidation Loans

Best Loans to Refinance Credit Card Debt

Best Loans with Fast Funding

Best Small Personal Loans

Best Large Personal Loans

Best Personal Loans to Apply Online

Best Student Loan Refinance

All Banking

Find the Savings Account for You

Best High Yield Savings Accounts

Best Big Bank Savings Accounts

Best Big Bank Checking Accounts

Best No Fee Checking Accounts

No Overdraft Fee Checking Accounts

Best Checking Account Bonuses

Best Money Market Accounts

Best Credit Unions

All Mortgages

Best Mortgages

Best Mortgages for Small Down Payment

Best Mortgages for No Down Payment

Best Mortgages with No Origination Fee

Best Mortgages for Average Credit Score

Adjustable Rate Mortgages

Affording a Mortgage

All Insurance

Best Life Insurance

Best Homeowners Insurance

Best Renters Insurance

Best Car Insurance

Travel Insurance

All Credit Monitoring

Best Credit Monitoring Services

Best Identity Theft Protection

How to Boost Your Credit Score

Credit Repair Services

All Personal Finance

Best Budgeting Apps

Best Expense Tracker Apps

Best Money Transfer Apps

Best Resale Apps and Sites

Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) Apps

Best Debt Relief

All Small Business

Best Small Business Savings Accounts

Best Small Business Checking Accounts

Best Credit Cards for Small Business

Best Small Business Loans

Best Tax Software for Small Business

Best Tax Software

Best Tax Software for Small Businesses

Tax Refunds

All Help for Low Credit Scores

Best Credit Cards for Bad Credit

Best Personal Loans for Bad Credit

Best Debt Consolidation Loans for Bad Credit

Personal Loans if You Don't Have Credit

Best Credit Cards for Building Credit

Personal Loans for 580 Credit Score or Lower

Personal Loans for 670 Credit Score or Lower

Best Mortgages for Bad Credit

Best Hardship Loans

All Investing

Best IRA Accounts

Best Roth IRA Accounts

Best Investing Apps

Best Free Stock Trading Platforms

Best Robo-Advisors

Index Funds

Mutual Funds

With more than half a million Americans unhoused, the U.S. is still struggling to solve the homelessness crisis

Can the U.S. solve homelessness?

  • Over half a million Americans were unhoused in 2020.
  • Despite the rising budget, overall homelessness in the U.S. has improved by only 10% compared with 2007.
  • For decades, the U.S. has relied on a "housing first" approach to homelessness, where permanent housing is provided for homeless people without preconditions.
  • Some critics argue that housing first hasn't done much to solve the crisis.

The Covid pandemic caused a surge in housing costs and a rise in unemployment, leaving nearly 600,000 Americans unhoused in 2020.

"What people don't typically realize when they walk past a person who's homeless is that this person is costing taxpayers a lot of money," said Sam Tsemberis, chief executive officer at Pathways Housing First Institute.

In 2019, New York City spent a record-breaking $3 billion to support its homeless population. California is also expected to break its record, allocating $4.8 billion to the same issue over the next two years.

Despite the rising budget, overall homelessness in the U.S. has improved by only 10% compared with 2007. It's even worse for certain subgroups, such as individual homelessness, which dropped by only 1% in the same period.

"Right now, we are trending in the wrong direction," said Anthony Love, interim executive director at the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. "The state of homelessness is pretty tenuous, and there are some small increases that are taking place across the board."

For decades, the U.S. has relied on a "housing first" approach to homelessness, where permanent housing is provided for homeless people without preconditions such as sobriety or employment.

"Without the coach to guide me into housing, I wouldn't be where I'm at now," said Shannon McGhee, who moved into his supportive housing in 2020 after being unhoused for four years. "Being able to have my housing first, I know that I'm in control of my environment. Now, what happens here is all about what I create."

However, some critics of the housing first approach say it hasn't shown enough real results to deem it successful.

"When the public is told that this particular policy is going to end homelessness, what they're expecting is that they're going to see fewer homeless people around," said Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "I don't think that we've seen that in the case of housing first."

Watch the video to find out more about the homelessness crisis in the U.S. and what the nation is doing to address the issue.


U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings
  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • Int J Environ Res Public Health

Logo of ijerph

Homelessness and Public Health: A Focus on Strategies and Solutions

David a. sleet.

1 School of Public Health, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA 92182, USA; moc.liamg@teelsadivad

2 Veritas Management, Inc., Atlanta, GA 30324, USA

Louis Hugo Francescutti

3 School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 1C9, Canada

4 Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 1C9, Canada

5 Royal Alexandra Hospital, Edmonton, AB T5H 3V9, Canada

On any given night, hundreds of thousands of people are homeless in the United States and Canada. Globally, the problem is many times worse, making homelessness a global public health and environmental problem. The facts [ 1 ] are staggering:

  • On a single night in January 2020, 580,466 people (about 18 out of every 10,000 people) experienced homelessness across the United States—a 2.2% increase from 2019.
  • While 61% percent of the homeless were staying in sheltered locations, the remainder—more than 226,000 people—were in unsheltered locations on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation.
  • Homelessness has increased in the last four consecutive years.
  • The increase in unsheltered homelessness is driven largely by increases in California.
  • In 2020, 171,575 people in families with children experienced homelessness on a single night.
  • A total of 3598 homeless people were children under the age of 18 without an adult present.
  • Veterans comprised 8% of all homeless adults (over 46,000 veterans struggle with homelessness).
  • People of color are significantly over-represented among those experiencing homelessness.

A layman’s definition of homelessness is usually “a person that has no permanent home”. However, many scholars have divided the broad group of people characterized as homeless into three (or more) categories:

  • - People without a place to reside;
  • - People in persistent poverty, forced to move constantly, and who are homeless for even brief periods of time;
  • - People who have lost their housing due to personal, social, or environmental circumstances.

While this definition refers specifically to homeless individuals, it is equally applicable to homeless families.

Homelessness is closely connected to declines in physical and mental health. Homeless persons experience high rates of health problems such as Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and Hepatitis A infections, alcohol and drug addiction, mental illness, tuberculosis, and other serious conditions. The health problems facing homeless persons result from various factors, including a lack of housing, racism and discrimination, barriers to health care, a lack of access to adequate food and protection, limited resources for social services, and an inadequate public health infrastructure. Legal and policy interventions have often been used to attempt to address homelessness, although not always from a public health perspective.

In health care, for example, if someone experiencing homelessness comes to an emergency department for medical aid, once treated, the only alternative is to release the patient back onto the street. This creates an endless cycle of emergency department visits, increasing costs and expending resources in the health care system.

Recent work [ 2 ] has emphasized the important role of public health, the health care system, and health care providers in homelessness prevention. In this Special Issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH), we have brought together researchers, practitioners, and community organizers to articulate the public health problem of homelessness and identify clear strategies to reduce homelessness and provide more adequate health care and housing for this population. We also explore solutions for important subpopulations, including adults, families with children, adolescents, women, transitional aged youth, and those suffering from mental illness, PTSD, alcohol dependency, mental illness, adverse childhood experiences, and chronic homelessness.

We address many of these issues in the context of public health and explore the public health implications and potential solutions to homelessness, focusing on contemporary and emerging research and innovative strategies, and highlighting best practices to address homelessness among key populations. The papers in this Special Issue attempt to answer several questions related to homelessness and public health, such as:

  • What is the extent of homelessness and why do people become homeless?
  • What are the public health and health services implications of homelessness?
  • What role does housing play as a precursor to and potential solution for homelessness?
  • What public health and health care interventions are being employed, and what effectiveness is being achieved?
  • What long-term strategies can be developed to prevent homelessness?

The 13 research papers and one commentary in this Special Issue are summarized as follows:

  • Conceptualizing an Interdisciplinary Collective Impact Approach to Examine and Intervene in the Chronic Cycle of Homelessness. This study by Abdel–Samad et al. [ 3 ] focuses on a novel, interdisciplinary academic–practice partnership model for addressing the problem of homelessness. Whereas singular disciplinary approaches may fall short in substantially reducing homelessness, this approach draws from a collective impact model that integrates discipline-specific approaches through mutually reinforcing activities and shared metrics. The paper describes what is necessary for capacity-building at the institution and community levels, the complementary strengths and contributions of each discipline in the model, and future implementation goals to address homelessness in the Southern California region using a cross-disciplinary approach.
  • Mental Illness and Youth-Onset Homelessness: A Retrospective Study among Adults Experiencing Homelessness . Iwundu et al. [ 4 ] conducted a retrospective study and evaluated the association between the timing of homelessness onset (youth versus adult) and mental illness. The results indicated that mental illness (as a reason for current homelessness) and severe mental illness comorbidities were each associated with increased odds of youth-onset homelessness, providing a basis for agencies that serve at-risk youth in order to address mental health precursors to youth homelessness.
  • Well-Being without a Roof: Examining Well-Being among Unhoused Individuals Using Mixed Methods and Propensity Score Matching. Ahuja et al. [ 5 ] found that the mean overall well-being score of unhoused participants was significantly lower than that of matched housed participants, with unhoused participants reporting lower mean scores for social connectedness, lifestyle and daily practices, stress and resilience, emotions, physical health, and finances. The unhoused participants had a statistically significantly higher mean score for spirituality and religiosity than their matched housed counterparts. The qualitative interviews highlighted spirituality and religion as a coping mechanism for the unhoused.
  • Combatting Homelessness in Canada: Applying Lessons Learned from Six Tiny Villages to the Edmonton Bridge Healing Program. Authors Wong et al. [ 6 ] discuss the Bridge Healing Program in Edmonton, Alberta, a novel approach to combatting homelessness by using hospital emergency departments (ED) as a gateway to temporary housing. The program provides residents with immediate temporary housing before transitioning them to permanent homes. The paper discusses effective strategies that underlie the Tiny Villages concept by analyzing six case studies and applying the lessons learned to improving the Bridge Healing Program and reducing repeat ED visits and ED lengths of stay among homeless individuals.
  • Change in Housing Status among Homeless and Formerly Homeless Individuals in Quebec, Canada: A Profile Study. Kaltsidis et al. [ 7 ] used a cluster analysis to develop a typology of the housing status change for 270 currently or formerly homeless individuals who were residing in shelters and temporary or permanent housing. The findings suggest that the maintenance or improvement in the housing status requires the availability of suitable types and frequencies of service use (enabling factors) that are well-adapted to the complexity of health problems (needs factors) among homeless individuals. Specific interventions, such as outreach programs and case management, are prioritized as necessary services, especially for individuals at a higher risk of returning to homelessness.
  • Urban Stress Indirectly Influences Psychological Symptoms through Its Association with Distress Tolerance and Perceived Social Support among Adults Experiencing Homelessness. To investigate the simultaneous impact of intrapersonal characteristics (distress tolerance) and interpersonal characteristics (social support) and their association with homelessness, Hernandez et al. [ 8 ] recruited homeless adults from six homeless shelters in Oklahoma City who self-reported urban life stress, distress tolerance, social support, major depressive disorder, and PTSD symptoms. Based on the resulting associations, their findings stress the importance of implementing interventions aimed at increasing social support for homeless persons, something that may also increase skill development for distress tolerance and indirectly lead to a reduction in depression and PTSD.
  • “I Felt Safe”: The Role of the Rapid Rehousing Program in Supporting the Security of Families Experiencing Homelessness in Salt Lake County, Utah. Garcia and Kim [ 9 ] describe their research into The Road Home (TRH) program, which provides services to homeless individuals and families. TRH is known for their emergency shelters and also administers the Rapid Rehousing Program (RRHP), designed to help homeless families transition back into stable housing. After collecting qualitative data from focus groups with participants and families, landlords, case managers, and service providers, they make recommendations for program improvements that can increase the residential security of families experiencing homelessness.
  • “It’s Just a Band-Aid on Something No One Really Wants to See or Acknowledge”: A Photovoice Study with Transitional Aged Youth Experiencing Homelessness to Examine the Roots of San Diego’s 2016–2018 Hepatitis A Outbreak. In this study, Felner et al. [ 10 ] examined the experiences and needs of transitional aged youth (TAY) aged 18–24 experiencing homelessness who may have been uniquely affected by an unprecedented outbreak of hepatitis A virus (HAV). The findings documented a stigmatization of TAY, interventions that failed to address root causes of the outbreak, and interactions with housing- and social support-related resources that limited rather than supported economic and social mobility. The findings have implications for understanding how media and public discourse, public health interventions, and the availability and delivery of resources can contribute to and perpetuate stigma and health inequities faced by TAY experiencing homelessness.
  • Predictors of Overnight and Emergency Treatment among Homeless Adults. Iwundu et al. [ 11 ] aimed to identify the sociodemographic predictors associated with overnight and emergency hospital treatment among a sample of homeless adults. Participants were recruited from a shelter in Dallas, Texas and were predominantly uninsured, low-income men and women from various social and ethnic groups. In logistic regression models, gender emerged as the only predictor of overnight treatment in a hospital and treatment in an emergency department. Women were more likely than men to be treated overnight and use emergency care. The authors concluded that interventions and policies targeted toward homeless women’s primary health care needs would reduce health care costs.
  • Association of Problematic Alcohol Use and Food Insecurity among Homeless Men and Women. In a study on alcohol use and food insecurity among homeless men and women, Reitzel et al. [ 12 ] investigated the link between problematic alcohol use and food insecurity among homeless adults in Oklahoma. Problematic alcohol use was measured using the Alcohol Quantity and Frequency Questionnaire and the Patient Health Questionnaire. Food insecurity was measured with the USDA Food Security Scale-Short Form. The results indicated that heavy drinking and probable alcohol dependence/abuse were each associated with increased odds of food insecurity. The results question whether alcohol may take precedence over eating or food purchases among this population of homeless individuals.
  • Exploring Tiny Homes as an Affordable Housing Strategy to Ameliorate Homelessness: A Case Study of the Dwellings in Tallahassee, FL. “Tiny Homes” is an emerging strategy to combat homelessness, and Jackson et al. [ 13 ] raise a number of questions about the intentions, efficacy, and policy feasibility of this strategy. The paper seeks to understand the strategies used by stakeholders to plan, design, and implement a “Tiny Homes” strategy, and to assess their effectiveness. Using a case study, they examined how the community was planned, the experiences of residents, and the constraints to success. Their findings highlighted how funding constraints and NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard-ism) stymied stakeholder efforts to achieve equity and affordability, resulting in the inability to achieve project aims to develop affordable housing that served homeless populations.
  • Predictors of Emergency Department Use among Individuals with Current or Previous Experience of Homelessness. The study by Gabet et al. [ 14 ] assessed the contributions of predisposing, enabling, and needs factors in predicting emergency department (ED) use among 270 individuals with a current or previous experience of homelessness. Participants were recruited from types of housing in Montreal, Quebec (Canada) and were interviewed about their ED use at baseline and again 12 months later. The findings revealed two needs factors associated with ED use: having a substance use disorder and low perceived physical health. Two enabling factors—the use of ambulatory specialized services and stigma—were also related to ED use. ED use was not associated with the type of housing. The authors suggest that improvements are needed to manage substance use disorders and the physical health of homeless individuals in order to reduce ED use.
  • Being at the Bottom Rung of the Ladder in an Unequal Society: A Qualitative Analysis of Stories of People without a Home. The Mabhala and Yohannes article [ 15 ] examines the stories of homeless people and their perceptions of their social status using interviews in three centers for homeless people in Cheshire, in the English Northwest. Education, employment, and health were three domains that provided a theoretical explanation for the reasons that led to their homelessness. Participants catalogued their adverse childhood experiences, which they believe limited their capacity to meaningfully engage with social institutions for social goods, such as education, social services, and institutions of employment. They conclude that, although not all people who are poorly educated, in poor health, and unemployed end up being homeless, a combination of these together with multiple adverse childhood experiences may weaken resilience and contribute to homelessness.
  • Commentary: Investing in Public Health Infrastructure to Address the Complexities of Homelessness. In a final commentary, Allegrante and Sleet [ 16 ] introduce the notion that investments in public health infrastructure are needed to address the complexities of homelessness, including the continued threats posed by SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and its variants. The lack of affordable housing, widespread unemployment, poverty, addiction and mental illness, which all contribute to the risk of homelessness, would be well-served by improving the fundamental public health infrastructure. They argue that homelessness is exacerbated by system-wide infrastructure failures at the municipal, state and federal governments and from the neglect to invest in public infrastructure, including a modern public health system.

In conclusion, shelter is a basic human need. Thus far, we have an inadequate understanding of all the medical and nonmedical, public health, and infrastructural influences that drive homelessness and why so many people are living without adequate shelter. Housing is one of the most critical factors in addressing homelessness and one of the best-researched social determinants of health. Several articles here focus on innovative approaches to providing temporary or permanent housing for those who need it, and it is well known that selected housing interventions can improve health and decrease health care costs. From that perspective, some professionals in the field contend that housing equates to health [ 17 ] and that improved housing options for homeless individuals and families would advance population-level health.

Many of the articles in this Special Issue [ 18 ] focus on specific aspects of life, quality of life, and co-morbidities related to behavioral and social variables influencing homelessness. Explored in detail are factors such as lack of housing, distress, wellness, emergency department use, mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, low educational attainment, inadequate health care and social services, adverse childhood experiences, ongoing infections, unemployment, and public health infrastructure. In addition to highlighting the impact these factors can have on the likelihood that someone would become homeless, many of the articles also provide recommendations for relevant policies, practices, and interventions that could help reduce homelessness and improve overall well-being.

The intersection of environmental, behavioral, and social factors, in addition to the lack of an adequate infrastructure, must also be considered when studying the determinants of homelessness and designing appropriate interventions. Our ultimate goal in producing this Special Issue of IJERPH is to encourage the development of better evidence to inform public health, social services, and medical care policies and practices that will result in better health for homeless populations.


We thank the authors and reviewers for their commitment to preparing and editing these manuscripts and for adding to the knowledge base of this important public health problem.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

  • Account Activating this button will toggle the display of additional content Account Sign out

We Could Solve Homelessness if We Wanted

In Los Angeles, a neighborhood has gone to war with itself over a tent city in a park . In Philadelphia, the transit authority said that it would close a subway station —cutting off an entire neighborhood from transit service—because of disorder related to the local homeless population.

Both of these stories, from the past month, are local tragedies. Taken together, they underline the way America’s homelessness crisis has taken on a depressing air of inevitability—not something that can be solved or even directly addressed, but an immovable fact around which we do our best to adjust everything else. We are battling what Rosanne Haggerty, who received a MacArthur “genius grant” for her work developing housing for the homeless, calls “the myth of the overwhelming nature of the problem.”

This state of affairs is nothing new—L.A. has consigned an entire neighborhood to the street homeless—but what is new is the sense that we might, finally, be able to do something about it. For the first time in a decade, Democrats control the executive and both houses of Congress. The American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed this month contains a big investment in fighting homelessness. In addition to $21.6 billion for low-income renters, it contains $5 billion for housing vouchers specifically targeted at at-risk renters and $5 billion in HOME grants, which cities and counties can use to invest in permanent supportive housing to prevent homelessness. It’s a lot. (The entire annual outlay for federal Section 8 housing vouchers, for comparison’s sake, is $22 billion .)

Sarah Saadian, a vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told me she is optimistic this infusion signals the administration’s intent to follow through on campaign promises related to homelessness—to treat affordable housing as an investment in infrastructure, and transform the housing voucher program into an entitlement. “This is the best opportunity we have to make a big dent in homelessness,” she said.

In 2021, not only is the large number of people living on the street a moral disgrace, it’s a problem we know how to solve. Homelessness is a housing problem, and getting people housing takes money.

Unlike gentrification, conspiracy theories, and other present-day phenomena that are in fact long-standing features of American life, modern homelessness has few analogues in our cities’ recent past. A 1976 history of low-income housing in America made the impossibly foreign observation that “the housing industry trades on the knowledge that no Western country can politically afford to permit its citizens to sleep in the streets.” The word homeless , in those days, was used mainly to describe persons displaced by war or natural disasters.

To diagnose the homelessness in their own towns, people have tried to convince themselves of many things: It’s the weather. Drugs. Social estrangement. Low wages. State disinvestment in psychiatric care, in caring for people with disabilities, in services for veterans. Ronald Reagan, infamously, said homelessness is a choice . There are at least half a million homeless people in the United States, so there is room for all those things to be a little bit true. But most of all, homelessness is about a shortage of low-income housing.

As Conor Dougherty writes in his book Golden Gates , urban redevelopment programs in the 1960s and ’70s “destroyed thousands of rooming houses and ‘cage hotels’ with single-occupant dwellings and shared bathrooms, removing a crucial support of last-resort shelter.” New York lost 109,000 single room occupancy units between 1971 and 1987. Roughly half the SRO stocks of Los Angeles and Seattle vanished in the same time frame. Chicago lost 80 percent of its SROs between 1960 and 1980, a decline of about 70,000 units. Prior to that, a man could work a little, drink a lot, and still afford a room to lay his head. Afterward, not so much.

Though homelessness has dropped by double digits in the United States since 2007, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data published last week , it has increased by double digits in four places: New York, California, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. Those places are not linked by their stingy safety nets, high rates of poverty, or substance abuse issues. They all just have really expensive housing.

That homelessness is connected to high housing costs may pass for counterintuitive because the popular image of homelessness is so closely linked to the chronically homeless—adult men, many of whom have a disability, who have spent years living on the street. These people need help , the thinking goes, not just a house.

But it’s hard for the web of city agencies, nonprofits, and religious institutions to focus on treating and helping those people when their ranks are swollen by the people sometimes called the “transitionally homeless”—Americans, often older, sometimes working, sometimes with cars, who would be ready and able to hold down an apartment if they could just get a little help with the rent.

New York City, the homelessness capital of the country, epitomizes this mismatch. Subway homelessness is the flashpoint: Transit workers often complain about harassment and attacks (and, more recently, getting the coronavirus) from homeless people in trains. Gov. Andrew Cuomo went so far as to shut the whole system down every night for the first sustained period since it opened more than a century ago, to clear people from the cars under the guise of cleaning them. According to the city’s point-in-time counts, there are 2,000 people who sleep in the subway each winter. You could rent each of them a decent apartment for a total of $50 million a year. Pandemic-era cleaning of the subway will likely end up costing 10 times that much .

But these avatars of the homeless crisis are not representative . More than two-thirds of the city’s homeless population consists of families with children; a third of those include at least one working adult. Their average length of stay in city facilities is more than a year. The many reasons they end up in a shelter or city-rented hotel room may include job loss, eviction, or domestic violence. But there is one clear way they get out: Only 1 percent of families who exit the shelter system for subsidized housing are back within a year.

This suggests that an ample system of housing subsidy might put tens of thousands of people back in homes virtually overnight. But New York state’s state shelter allowance for a mom and two kids maxes out at $400 a month. There are 60,000 homeless people in New York City’s shelter system, and fewer than 500 households a year receive Section 8 vouchers.

That’s an issue Democrats could fix right now by expanding the housing choice voucher program, which only covers one in four low-income renters in this country. The Section 8 waitlist has been closed in New York City since 2009. In Los Angeles, the waitlist was closed for 13 years before it reopened (and then closed again) in 2017. Even lower-cost cities like Houston go years without taking new applicants.

Guaranteed housing assistance wouldn’t just help families who have just lost their homes. After Hurricane Katrina, Martha Kegel, the director of the anti-homelessness nonprofit UNITY of Greater New Orleans, fought for an expansion of vouchers for people who were homeless and disabled. The city got 1,000 of them, which was instrumental in helping reduce the post-Katrina homeless population by 90 percent. The conventional wisdom that homeless people are “hard to reach” is linked to the low-quality support services on offer, she argued. “Almost no one will turn down an apartment.” Demand-side subsidy doesn’t solve every problem, but it does encourage landlords and owners to bring new affordable units into the market, she added.

The emphasis on housing vouchers is part of a philosophical sea change in homelessness policy over the past few decades, from “housing ready”—you have to solve a person’s problems before they’re ready for housing—to “housing first”: Get a roof over someone’s head and the rest will be easier to work out. It’s much easier to provide “wraparound services” to the homeless people who need help if they have a fixed address. (This is one of many miracles associated with providing proper housing; another is alleviating the overcrowded dwellings that have proved so deadly during the pandemic.)

Like poverty, homelessness has many self-reinforcing costs: injury, theft, jail time for minor offenses like public urination or having an open container. Health care costs fall so much when people have shelter that the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago started renting units for the most frequent visitors to its emergency room.

Take this logic up a level and you can see how American homelessness is not just a moral disgrace, but an expensive one too. City, state, and federal balance sheets may not look good when they pour money into affordable housing, but the savings are spread across the economy: Fewer people on the street saves time and money for doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and the entire criminal justice system. All it takes is a roof over your head.

comscore beacon

how to solve the problem of homelessness

How Communities are Building Systems to Reduce and End Homelessness

  • Share this page on Facebook facebook
  • Share this page on Twitter twitter
  • Share this page on LinkedIn linkedin
  • Community & Economic Development
  • Race & Equity

Our work has always been dedicated to ending homelessness. But the complex nature of homelessness has challenged our notions of what it takes to solve it, over and over again. 

how to solve the problem of homelessness

In 2014, our organization  Community Solutions  announced the completion of an initiative known as the 100,000 Homes Campaign. 186 participating communities aimed to collectively house 100,000 of the most medically vulnerable Americans experiencing homelessness. In many regards, it was a tremendous success. Communities had increased housing placement rates for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness by over 200%, connecting more than 105,000 Americans to a home in under four years. 

But there was a problem: none of those communities ended homelessness for a population.

Instead of helping communities count up to a certain number of housing placements, we needed to learn what it takes to count down to zero people experiencing homelessness. . 

We have now worked with 14 communities that have achieved this aim for a population by achieving a milestone known as functional zero. They are participating in  Built for Zero , a national initiative of more than 80 cities and counties dedicated to measurably and equitably ending homelessness. 

In partnership with these cities and counties, we have had the opportunity to identify four necessary features of a system designed to drive and sustain reductions in homelessness.

A Unified Accountable, Community-Wide Team

One of the key challenges to ending homelessness is the distributed nature of homelessness response. In any community, dozens or even hundreds of organizations may serve people experiencing homelessness, each defining success by their own program measures.

Communities must begin by breaking down these siloes to establish a unified team that creates shared accountability across these efforts . In many Built for Zero communities, these teams are committed to working together weekly to examine how they can connect people to permanent housing, moving from a mentality of “my client” to “our clients.” They can see the system as a whole and collectively remove barriers that are impacting the whole population of people experiencing homelessness. 

One community was able to find that the process for helping individuals into housing had organically and unintentionally been designed as a process that takes 42 steps and 300 days for a person to navigate. Only by working together could they take a line of sight across this entire system and begin to design something different. 

A Shared Aim and Definition of Success

This fragmented system often means that no one has authority over or accountability for whether all those efforts and investments are adding up to overall reductions in homelessness over time — or whether those outcomes are equitable. This unified team must be grounded by a shared aim and operating definition of how they would know that they were making progress toward that goal. 

In Built for Zero, communities start by setting a goal to measurably end veteran or chronic homelessness. Progress is measured by whether the number of people experiencing homelessness is going down, month over month, toward zero. The community knows it has reached its aim when it achieves  functional zero , or fewer people are experiencing homelessness than can be routinely housed. This indicates not only that homelessness is rare across a population, but that resilient systems are in place to continuously reduce and end it. As communities sustain functional zero for a population, they expand their efforts to other populations, working toward systems that end homelessness for all. 

While ending homelessness is a necessary pathway to an equitable future, we know that these efforts are influenced by the racism embedded in and across our country’s systems. Communities in Built for Zero are using a  measurement framework  to understand and improve the racial equity of a community’s homeless response system as it works toward getting to functional zero. The homeless response system — like any other system — must be explicitly set up to identify and respond to racial disparities if it is to avoid maintaining or even deepening them. 

A Feedback Loop Based on Quality, Real-Time Data

In 2019, one community’s annual Point-In-Time count indicated a 24% rise in chronic homelessness. But as it worked with Built for Zero to gather quality, real-time data, the community found that the 24% increase was reflecting a natural variation that happens over the course of a year, depending on the month. In fact, toward the end of the year, the community had been driving steady reductions in homelessness. 

A shift toward using data for improvement requires a more rapid, reliable, and actionable feedback loop to understand the nature and scale of homelessness at any given time. Communities in Built for Zero have quality, by-name data, which means that they deeply understand homelessness in their community in real time. This includes:

  • Every person experiencing homelessness at any given time , by name and individual need.
  • The total number of people experiencing homelessness,  including sheltered and unsheltered populations.
  • The systems dynamics behind those numbers,  like how many people entered or exited from homelessness that month, and how many people returned from housing.
  • The racial equity of a system,  like system decision-making power, the experiences of those being served by the system, and disparities in systems outcomes, like length of time or rates of exit to permanent housing.

To better serve individuals, this data is used by agencies and organizations to connect people with the appropriate support and resources. At the population level, this data enables the community to understand whether investments and efforts are truly adding up to reductions in homelessness. Communities can strategize, test, and evaluate changes to their system — whether that requires looking upstream at other systems that are contributing to people entering into homelessness, or targeting barriers that exist for people working to exit homelessness. This data is also critical for equipping decision-makers with the information they need to advocate for and target resources to drive the greatest possible reductions.

Moving to Systems Designed to Get to Zero

The 100,000 Homes campaign was an important lesson for our team. We learned that taking immediate action to increase housing placements for people is worthy work, by many measures. But without deep systems change dedicated to getting to zero, it did not help communities design systems that could achieve or sustain population-level reductions.

Elected and municipal leaders across the country are facing tremendous urgency to act on homelessness. And through their influence, investments, and convening power, these leaders have a powerful role to play. This includes balancing the immediate actions that produce short-term gains with the deep systems change necessary to equitably and sustainably solve homelessness. To that end, we recommend that leaders ask the following questions in any conversation around ending homelessness:

  • Are we all aligned behind a commitment to population-level reductions in homelessness as the critical measure of our success as a city/county? 
  • How will this support the community’s aim of functionally ending   homelessness?
  • Is the community currently driving population-level reductions in homelessness? 
  • How will this effort, investment, or intervention   help communities drive population-level reductions in homelessness — and how would we know? 
  • Is real-time, by-name data informing these decisions, and where is that data coming from?

We know homelessness is solvable because communities are proving it every day. Together, we must work to help communities establish the resilient, equitable, and data-driven systems that will ensure this becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

how to solve the problem of homelessness

About the Authors:

Anna Kim is the Principal of Communications, Community Solutions

how to solve the problem of homelessness

Beth Sandor is the Principal of Community Solutions and Co-Director, Built for Zero,

About the Authors

You may also like:.

how to solve the problem of homelessness

Housing for Older Adults

how to solve the problem of homelessness

  • Mia Chapman

how to solve the problem of homelessness

Celebrate National Apprenticeship Week 2023: Building a Skilled Workforce for the Future

how to solve the problem of homelessness

  • McKinzie McGuire

how to solve the problem of homelessness

Municipal Action Guide: Advancing Racial Equity in Your City

how to solve the problem of homelessness

From the Event: Cities Narrowing the Racial Wealth Divide Through Procurement

how to solve the problem of homelessness

Advancing Economic Mobility in Cities

how to solve the problem of homelessness

  • Economic Opportunity & Workforce Development

America’s Cities: Where Infrastructure Can Mean Inclusion

Why Homelessness Still Exists and How We Can End It

how to solve the problem of homelessness

The Official Blog of the National Alliance to End Homelessness

By Jeff Olivet, Executive Director, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness

When one person—even one—dies on the street, we as a society have failed them. When one family seeking safe housing and a stable school for their children is discriminated against by a landlord, we have failed them. When one young queer person of color ages out of foster care with no place to go, or when one person completes a sentence and leaves prison only to end up in a shelter, we have failed. When one Veteran returns from serving this country and ends up homeless, we have failed.

I believe we can do better.

Over the last several decades, our public policies have allowed homelessness to persist. We have created homelessness on a systemic level—a societal level—and on a scale we have not witnessed since the Great Depression. Yet we try to solve it at the individual level. And we have gotten very good at that part of the picture. Effective housing and service interventions like Housing First, Critical Time Intervention, and others have helped hundreds of thousands of people exit homelessness over the past decade.

So why does homelessness still exist? Is it because what we are doing isn’t working? Absolutely not.

We have developed systems that are increasingly efficient in helping people move from homelessness to the stability and connection of a permanent home. We see these success stories every day. It is what inspires us to continue in this challenging work.

So what are we not doing right?

One problem is that we haven’t scaled effective solutions to meet the demand. Another is that we haven’t held ourselves and our communities accountable to the goal of ending homelessness. We too often measure ourselves by outputs rather than outcomes. We haven’t gone upstream to stem the tide of people becoming newly homeless. And we haven’t yet figured out how to address the underlying root causes of homelessness, including the dual crises of housing affordability and eviction, and the persistent structural racism that drives disproportionately high rates of homelessness for people of color.

The result is that even as we see individual successes all the time—tens of thousands of people every year exiting homelessness, holding down jobs, reconnecting with family and friends, stepping strongly into courageous journeys of recovery from mental health and substance use issues— we have not solved homelessness systemically . It is time that we do just that.

A systemic end to homelessness will require:

  • Leading with equity , so that even as we work for an end to all homelessness for all people, we use strategies specifically designed to eliminate racial disparities.
  • Grounding our policy decisions in accurate, real-time data, and sound evidence , so that we are making the best use of the resources we have. Until we have a clearer picture of the scope of the problem, it is impossible to understand the scope of resources needed to solve it.
  • Going upstream to stem inflow and prevent homelessness from ever happening in the first place. This will require focused, cross-sector collaboration at the federal, state, and local levels in a way that we have not done before.
  • Strengthening our crisis response system to address unsheltered homelessness, encampments, and barriers to shelter, so that people stay alive long enough to get back into housing and supports.
  • Scaling effective housing solutions , with the recognition that housing is the stable foundation from which individuals, families, young people, seniors, and Veterans can achieve health, wellness, and connection.
  • Providing a broad range of supportive services —from mental health and substance use treatment to employment and educational supports to childcare and transportation to direct cash transfers—so that people can sustain themselves in permanent housing.

In the coming months, the team from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) will release our federal strategic plan to guide the work of preventing and ending homelessness in the U.S. The plan will reflect what we heard from many of you through nearly 100 listening sessions that included many individuals who themselves have experienced the horrors of homelessness.

As we finalize the plan and roll it out, we will need your help putting it into action.

The work ahead will be difficult, but it will not be impossible. If we can imagine a better, more humane society , a society in which no one is left behind and no one is without a home, then we can build toward that vision. We must come together—housed and unhoused, Republicans and Democrats, government agencies and nonprofits, faith communities and corporations, people of all racial/ethnic backgrounds and all gender expressions and sexual orientations. We must come together to find common ground around the shared goal of ending homelessness once and for all.

We have a long road ahead. Remember to take care of yourselves and take care of each other. Find joy in the daily victories. Stay focused, stay strong, and stay engaged until homelessness is a relic of the past, a faded memory.

Privacy Overview

  • Election Integrity
  • Immigration

Political Thought

  • American History
  • Conservatism
  • Progressivism


  • Global Politics
  • Middle East

Government Spending

  • Budget and Spending

Energy & Environment

  • Environment

Legal and Judicial

  • Crime and Justice
  • Second Amendment
  • The Constitution

National Security

  • Cybersecurity

Domestic Policy

  • Government Regulation
  • Health Care Reform
  • Marriage and Family
  • Religious Liberty
  • International Economies
  • Markets and Finance

Homelessness in America: An Overview

Christopher Rufo

Key Takeaways

Policymakers must understand that homelessness is primarily a human problem, not a housing problem.

The dominant policy in progressive cities—“Housing First” combined with “harm reduction”—has failed to reduce homelessness.

The solution to homelessness is to enforce public order and provide high-quality services that target root causes such as addiction and mental illness.

Select a Section 1 /0

Although homelessness decreased 10 percent nationwide from 2009 to 2019, REF it is a growing problem in some neighborhoods of such U.S. cities as San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, where the streets are lined with tents, REF homelessness-related crime has exploded, REF and residents are exasperated by persistent public disorder. Since 2011, these cities have spent billions on homelessness, yet the number of homeless has increased 15 percent in Los Angeles, 24 percent in San Francisco, and 25 percent in Seattle. REF

Local leaders have the primary responsibility for homelessness policy. Those in cities who have failed to solve the problem have failed because they have failed to understand the problem—with perilous consequences not only for average citizens, but also for the homeless themselves, who have been left in the streets where they suffer from addiction, mental illness, and threats of violence and in many case pass away.

A Human Problem, Not a Housing Problem

While it is tempting to think of homelessness in terms of housing—it is embedded in the very term “homeless”—this conceptualization obscures important dynamics. For most of the homeless, lack of housing is the result of a series of misfortunes, including job loss, domestic violence, family crisis, and health emergencies. REF

Furthermore, despite the political rhetoric that attempts to avoid it, two of the primary drivers of homelessness are drug addiction and mental illness. According to the latest data, approximately three-quarters of the unsheltered homeless—people living in cars, tents, and on the streets—suffer from serious mental illness and drug addiction. REF Ultimately, as we have known since the 1990s when street homelessness first became prevalent in major cities, homelessness is the result of the loss of human relationships, including those with family and community. REF

Currently, the dominant policy prescription in many progressive cities is “Housing First” combined with “harm reduction.” Housing First, which has become the default policy in hundreds of American cities and is widely subsidized by the federal government, REF is the idea of providing permanent housing to the homeless with no requirement for sobriety or participation in addiction and mental health services. This model assumes that many, if not most, of the homeless will never be able to overcome their addictions and that programs should therefore focus on “harm reduction,” which means preventing overdose deaths and managing the most negative aspects of addiction, not promoting drug recovery or abstinence. Unfortunately, neither Housing First nor harm reduction has lived up to its promises.

Housing First programs, which have cost the local, state, and federal governments billions of dollars over the past decade, have failed even to keep pace with homelessness. REF Some projects have cost up to $700,000 for a simple apartment unit, REF and taxpayers in Los Angeles voted for a $1.2 billion bond that will likely provide fewer than 5,000 Housing First units for a total homeless population of 59,000. REF Moreover, as a large body of evidence demonstrates, Housing First programs generally do not reduce substance abuse, psychiatric symptoms, and (in some studies) even the rate of death—the very human factors that are central to the experience of homelessness. REF Many Housing First programs simply transfer the dysfunction of the street to subsidized apartment complexes.

Seattle, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, and other cities REF have argued recently that policymakers should move further in the direction of “harm reduction” and follow the model of Vancouver, Canada, which has adopted the most progressive homelessness and addiction policies in North America. Fifteen years ago, Vancouver opened a series of “safe injection sites” in which predominantly homeless addicts can inject heroin, methamphetamine, and other drugs under the supervision of support workers, who can administer overdose-reversal drugs if necessary. Although no one has overdosed within these facilities, the surrounding neighborhood has seen more overdose deaths than ever. REF Even worse, the injection sites have created a neighborhood-wide haven for drug dealers, drug users, and criminal gangs, which has led to increased rates of overdose deaths, crime, and violence.

Despite these negative outcomes, political leaders have continued to centralize services, including safe injection sites, in the neighborhood, which only compounds the social dysfunction. REF In other words, the policy that seeks to reduce harm ends up enabling it.

Another policy is needed. The approach of progressive West Coast cities has not succeeded in reducing homelessness, but there are other models in the United States that show the potential for positive results.

Balancing Services with Enforcement to Reduce Homelessness Successfully

Houston, Texas, is the untold homelessness success story. Democratic mayor Sylvester Turner has argued that the city must balance the provision of services with enforcement of the law against street camping—a combination he refers to as “tough love.” REF

This approach has paid dividends. Between 2011 and 2019, the city reduced homelessness by a remarkable 54 percent as it continued to skyrocket in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. REF The mayor consistently enforced the law against camping and drug consumption, even fighting and winning a lawsuit against the American Civil Liberties Union, which had attempted to hamstring enforcement efforts. REF

Mayor Turner demonstrated an important lesson: City governments cannot and should not tolerate rampant street disorder, which is common in the major West Coast cities. This only incentivizes more homelessness and disorder, including large numbers of transient homeless who migrate to permissive jurisdictions. This so-called magnet effect can profoundly impact the composition of a city or county’s homeless population: In Los Angeles County, for example, 35 percent of the homeless migrated to the county after becoming homeless outside the county; REF in King County, which is home to Seattle, 23 percent of the homeless migrated to the county after becoming homeless in another state. REF

Next, in order to address the human challenges associated with homelessness, particularly addiction and mental illness, cities must provide effective services and treatment programs. Fortunately, gold standard “Treatment First” programs have demonstrated robust results. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has run a multi-decade study on intensive housing and treatment programs for the homeless that get people off the streets, into recovery, connected with employment, and eventually on to independent living. REF In one of the program’s most successful cohorts, 44 percent of men were stably housed and 53 percent were stably employed after 12 months—an incredible outcome, given the severe social, psychological, and medical challenges of this population.

As American policymakers grapple with rising homelessness, they should first recognize that current approaches are not working. Housing First and harm reduction made outsized promises but failed to deliver commensurate results. Cities must recognize that a new approach is needed to address the full nature of human challenges facing the homeless.

First, policymakers must ensure a baseline of public order—in short, enforce the laws against public camping, drug consumption, and homelessness-related property crimes—which is a prerequisite for any successful intervention. Next, cities must shift funds from failing Housing First programs into so-called Treatment First programs that address the human problems of addiction and mental illness and create a series of incentives to move the homeless from the streets into treatment programs and, ultimately, to self-sufficiency. REF Compassionate leadership, combined with a proper sense of limits and public order, can make all the difference.

Christopher F. Rufo is a Visiting Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation and the Director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the Discovery Institute.

Former Visiting Fellow for Domestic Policy Studies

Poverty and Inequality

Today, the U.S. spends 16 times as much on welfare as it spent in the 1960s yet the federal poverty rate remains nearly unchanged.

COMMENTARY 34 min read

COMMENTARY 6 min read

COMMENTARY 3 min read

Subscribe to email updates

© 2023, The Heritage Foundation

The Obvious Answer to Homelessness

And why everyone’s ignoring it

illustration of large keyhole in focus through which is a blurry house with blue sky and green lawn in distance

Updated at 2:52 p.m. ET on December 23, 2022.

When someone becomes homeless, the instinct is to ask what tragedy befell them. What bad choices did they make with drugs or alcohol? What prevented them from getting a higher-paying job? Why did they have more children than they could afford? Why didn’t they make rent? Identifying personal failures or specific tragedies helps those of us who have homes feel less precarious—if homelessness is about personal failure, it’s easier to dismiss as something that couldn’t happen to us, and harsh treatment is easier to rationalize toward those who experience it.

Magazine Cover image

Explore the January/February 2023 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

But when you zoom out, determining individualized explanations for America’s homelessness crisis gets murky. Sure, individual choices play a role, but why are there so many more homeless people in California than Texas? Why are rates of homelessness so much higher in New York than West Virginia? To explain the interplay between structural and individual causes of homelessness, some who study this issue use the analogy of children playing musical chairs . As the game begins, the first kid to become chairless has a sprained ankle. The next few kids are too anxious to play the game effectively. The next few are smaller than the big kids. At the end, a fast, large, confident child sits grinning in the last available seat.

You can say that disability or lack of physical strength caused the individual kids to end up chairless. But in this scenario, chairlessness itself is an inevitability: The only reason anyone is without a chair is because there aren’t enough of them.

Now let’s apply the analogy to homelessness. Yes, examining who specifically becomes homeless can tell important stories of individual vulnerability created by disability or poverty, domestic violence or divorce. Yet when we have a dire shortage of affordable housing, it’s all but guaranteed that a certain number of people will become homeless. In musical chairs, enforced scarcity is self-evident. In real life, housing scarcity is more difficult to observe—but it’s the underlying cause of homelessness.

In their book, Homelessness Is a Housing Problem , the University of Washington professor Gregg Colburn and the data scientist Clayton Page Aldern demonstrate that “the homelessness crisis in coastal cities cannot be explained by disproportionate levels of drug use, mental illness, or poverty.” Rather, the most relevant factors in the homelessness crisis are rent prices and vacancy rates.

Jerusalem Demsas: Housing breaks people’s brains

Colburn and Aldern note that some urban areas with very high rates of poverty (Detroit, Miami-Dade County, Philadelphia) have among the lowest homelessness rates in the country, and some places with relatively low poverty rates (Santa Clara County, San Francisco, Boston) have relatively high rates of homelessness. The same pattern holds for unemployment rates: “Homelessness is abundant,” the authors write, “only in areas with robust labor markets and low rates of unemployment—booming coastal cities.”

Why is this so? Because these “ superstar cities, ” as economists call them, draw an abundance of knowledge workers. These highly paid workers require various services, which in turn create demand for an array of additional workers, including taxi drivers, lawyers and paralegals, doctors and nurses, and day-care staffers. These workers fuel an economic-growth machine—and they all need homes to live in. In a well-functioning market, rising demand for something just means that suppliers will make more of it. But housing markets have been broken by a policy agenda that seeks to reap the gains of a thriving regional economy while failing to build the infrastructure—housing—necessary to support the people who make that economy go. The results of these policies are rising housing prices and rents, and skyrocketing homelessness.

It’s not surprising that people wrongly believe the fundamental causes of the homelessness crisis are mental-health problems and drug addiction. Our most memorable encounters with homeless people tend to be with those for whom mental-health issues or drug abuse are evident; you may not notice the family crashing in a motel, but you will remember someone experiencing a mental-health crisis on the subway.

I want to be precise here. It is true that many people who become homeless are mentally ill. It is also true that becoming homeless exposes people to a range of traumatic experiences, which can create new problems that housing alone may not be able to solve. But the claim that drug abuse and mental illness are the fundamental causes of homelessness falls apart upon investigation. If mental-health issues or drug abuse were major drivers of homelessness, then places with higher rates of these problems would see higher rates of homelessness. They don’t. Utah, Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, West Virginia, Vermont, Delaware, and Wisconsin have some of the highest rates of mental illness in the country, but relatively modest homelessness levels. What prevents at-risk people in these states from falling into homelessness at high rates is simple: They have more affordable-housing options.

With similar reasoning, we can reject the idea that climate explains varying rates of homelessness. If warm weather attracted homeless people in large numbers, Seattle; Portland, Oregon; New York City; and Boston would not have such high rates of homelessness and cities in southern states like Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi such low ones. (There is a connection between unsheltered homelessness and temperature, but it’s not clear which way the causal arrow goes: The East Coast and the Midwest have a lot more shelter capacity than the West Coast, which keeps homeless people more out of view.)

America has had populations of mentally ill, drug-addicted, poor, and unemployed people for the whole of its history, and Los Angeles has always been warmer than Duluth—and yet the homelessness crisis we see in American cities today dates only to the 1980s . What changed that caused homelessness to explode then? Again, it’s simple: lack of housing. The places people needed to move for good jobs stopped building the housing necessary to accommodate economic growth.

Homelessness is best understood as a “flow” problem, not a “stock” problem. Not that many Americans are chronically homeless—the problem, rather, is the millions of people who are precariously situated on the cliff of financial stability, people for whom a divorce, a lost job, a fight with a roommate, or a medical event can result in homelessness. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, roughly 207 people get rehoused daily across the county—but 227 get pushed into homelessness . The crisis is driven by a constant flow of people losing their housing.

The homelessness crisis is most acute in places with very low vacancy rates, and where even “low income” housing is still very expensive. A study led by an economist at Zillow shows that when a growing number of people are forced to spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent, homelessness spikes.

Academics who study homelessness know this. So do policy wonks and advocacy groups. So do many elected officials. And polling shows that the general public recognizes that housing affordability plays a role in homelessness. Yet politicians and policy makers have generally failed to address the root cause of the crisis.

Few Republican-dominated states have had to deal with severe homelessness crises, mainly because superstar cities are concentrated in Democratic states. Some blame profligate welfare programs for blue-city homelessness, claiming that people are moving from other states to take advantage of coastal largesse. But the available evidence points in the opposite direction—in 2022, just 4 percent of homeless people in San Francisco reported having become homeless outside of California. Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern found essentially no relationship between places with more generous welfare programs and rates of homelessness. And abundant other research indicates that social-welfare programs reduce homelessness. Consider, too, that some people move to superstar cities in search of gainful employment and then find themselves unable to keep up with the cost of living—not a phenomenon that can be blamed on welfare policies.

But liberalism is largely to blame for the homelessness crisis: A contradiction at the core of liberal ideology has precluded Democratic politicians, who run most of the cities where homelessness is most acute, from addressing the issue. Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups that have historically been shunted to the peripheries of the housing market. But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple .

This contradiction drives the ever more visible crisis. As the historian Jacob Anbinder has explained , in the ’70s and ’80s conservationists, architectural preservationists, homeowner groups, and left-wing organizations formed a loose coalition in opposition to development. Throughout this period, Anbinder writes, “the implementation of height limits, density restrictions, design review boards, mandatory community input, and other veto points in the development process” made it much harder to build housing. This coalition—whose central purpose is opposition to neighborhood change and the protection of home values—now dominates politics in high-growth areas across the country, and has made it easy for even small groups of objectors to prevent housing from being built. The result? The U.S. is now millions of homes short of what its population needs .

Annie Lowrey: The U.S. needs more housing than almost anyone can imagine

Los Angeles perfectly demonstrates the competing impulses within the left. In 2016, voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure to subsidize the development of housing for homeless and at-risk residents over a span of 10 years. But during the first five years, roughly 10 percent of the housing units the program was meant to create were actually produced. In addition to financing problems, the biggest roadblock was small groups of objectors who didn’t want affordable housing in their communities.

Los Angeles isn’t alone. The Bay Area is notorious in this regard. In the spring of 2020, the billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen published an essay , “It’s Time to Build,” that excoriated policy makers’ deference to “the old, the entrenched.” Yet it turned out that Andreessen and his wife had vigorously opposed the building of a small number of multifamily units in the wealthy Bay Area town of Atherton, where they live.

The small- c conservative belief that people who already live in a community should have veto power over changes to it has wormed its way into liberal ideology . This pervasive localism is the key to understanding why officials who seem genuinely shaken by the homelessness crisis too rarely take serious action to address it.

The worst harms of the homelessness crisis fall on the people who find themselves without housing. But it’s not their suffering that risks becoming a major political problem for liberal politicians in blue areas: If you trawl through Facebook comments, Nextdoor posts, and tweets, or just talk with people who live in cities with large unsheltered populations, you see that homelessness tends to be viewed as a problem of disorder, of public safety, of quality of life. And voters are losing patience with their Democratic elected officials over it.

In a 2021 poll conducted in Los Angeles County, 94 percent of respondents said homelessness was a serious or very serious problem. (To put that near unanimity into perspective, just 75 percent said the same about traffic congestion—in Los Angeles!) When asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how unsafe “having homeless individuals in your neighborhood makes you feel,” 37 percent of people responded with a rating of 8 or higher, and another 19 percent gave a rating of 6 or 7. In Seattle, 71 percent of respondents to a recent poll said they wouldn’t feel safe visiting downtown Seattle at night, and 91 percent said that downtown won’t recover until homelessness and public safety are addressed. There are a lot of polls like this.

As the situation has deteriorated, particularly in areas where homelessness overruns public parks or public transit, policy makers’ failure to respond to the crisis has transformed what could have been an opportunity for reducing homelessness into yet another cycle of support for criminalizing it. In Austin, Texas, 57 percent of voters backed reinstating criminal penalties for homeless encampments; in the District of Columbia, 75 percent of respondents to a Washington Post poll said they supported shutting down “homeless tent encampments” even without firm assurances that those displaced would have somewhere to go. Poll data from Portland , Seattle , and Los Angeles , among other places, reveal similarly punitive sentiments.

This voter exasperation spells trouble for politicians who take reducing homelessness seriously. Voters will tolerate disorder for only so long before they become amenable to reactionary candidates and measures, even in very progressive areas. In places with large unsheltered populations, numerous candidates have materialized to run against mainstream Democrats on platforms of solving the homelessness crisis and restoring public order.

By and large, the candidates challenging the failed Democratic governance of high-homelessness regions are not proposing policies that would substantially increase the production of affordable housing or provide rental assistance to those at the bottom end of the market. Instead, these candidates—both Republicans and law-and-order-focused Democrats—are concentrating on draconian treatment of people experiencing homelessness. Even in Oakland, California, a famously progressive city, one of the 2022 candidates for mayor premised his campaign entirely on eradicating homeless encampments and returning order to the streets—and managed to finish third in a large field.

During the 2022 Los Angeles mayoral race, neither the traditional Democratic candidate, Karen Bass, who won, nor her opponent, Rick Caruso, were willing to challenge the antidemocratic processes that have allowed small groups of people to block desperately needed housing. Caruso campaigned in part on empowering homeowners and honoring “their preferences more fully,” as Ezra Klein put it in The New York Times —which, if I can translate, means allowing residents to block new housing more easily. (After her victory, Bass nodded at the need to house more people in wealthier neighborhoods—a tepid commitment that reveals NIMBYism’s continuing hold on liberal politicians.)

“We’ve been digging ourselves into this situation for 40 years, and it’s likely going to take us 40 years to get out,” Eric Tars, the legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center, told me.

Building the amount of affordable housing necessary to stanch the daily flow of new people becoming homeless is not the project of a single election cycle, or even several. What can be done in the meantime is a hard question, and one that will require investment in temporary housing. Better models for homeless shelters arose out of necessity during the pandemic. Using hotel space as shelter allowed the unhoused to have their own rooms; this meant families could usually stay together (many shelters are gender-segregated, ban pets, and lack privacy). Houston’s success in combatting homelessness — down 62 percent since 2011—suggests that a focus on moving people into permanent supportive housing provides a road map to success. (Houston is less encumbered by the sorts of regulations that make building housing so difficult elsewhere.)

The political dangers to Democrats in those cities where the homelessness crisis is metastasizing into public disorder are clear. But Democratic inaction risks sparking a broader political revolt—especially as housing prices leave even many middle- and upper-middle-class renters outside the hallowed gates of homeownership. We should harbor no illusions that such a revolt will lead to humane policy change.

Simply making homelessness less visible has come to be what constitutes “success.” New York City consistently has the nation’s highest homelessness rate, but it’s not as much of an Election Day issue as it is on the West Coast. That’s because its displaced population is largely hidden in shelters. Yet since 2012, the number of households in shelters has grown by more than 30 percent—despite the city spending roughly $3 billion a year (as of 2021) trying to combat the problem. This is what policy failure looks like. At some point, someone’s going to have to own it.

This article has been updated to clarify the percentage of homeless people who reported having moved to California from out of state.

This article appears in the January/February 2023 print edition with the headline “The Looming Revolt Over Homelessness.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation

Preventing and Ending Youth Homelessness in America

A thrive by 25 ® brief.

By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

March 8, 2023

Aecf youthhomelessness cover 2023

Download This Brief on Youth Homelessness

In This Report, You’ll Learn

  • Data on the prevalence of youth homelessness.
  • Risks that youth face when homeless.
  • Why current efforts on youth homelessness are falling short.
  • Recommendations for addressing and ending youth homelessness.

About This Report

Table of contents, key takeaway, findings & stats, statements & quotations.

  • Other reports in this series
  • Blog post: 1 in 10 Young Adults, 1 in 30 Kids Experience Homelessness Each Year
  • Copyright, Citation and Usage

Not all young people have the benefit of growing up in a safe and stable home. In fact: Across America, 1 in 30 youth between the ages of 13 to 24 and 1 in 10 young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 will experience homelessness over the course of a year. This scenario — which occurs during an important developmental period — can inject trauma into a young person’s life, limit their growth and carry costly community consequences.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation and Youth Homelessness

In recognition of these challenges, the Annie E. Casey Foundation is joining partners in the field, such as Funders Together to End Homelessness, to ensure that young people have safe, stable housing access to meaningful educational and economic opportunities.

This brief, released by the Foundation, shares facts about youth homelessness in America. It also reviews the nation’s current response to youth homelessness, the risks that young people face when homeless, and what leaders can be doing to prevent and end housing instability among young people today.

Funding, Policy and Practice Recommendations on Youth Homelessness

To ensure that all young people have a safe and stable place to live and the resources needed to thrive and grow into adulthood, the Foundation makes the following recommendations:

  • develop a unified definition of youth homelessness;
  • focus on prevention;
  • target funding to basic needs and other youth homelessness risks;
  • support cross-systems partnerships;
  • advance equity;
  • elevate youth voices;
  • transform the justice system response; and
  • help young people leaving foster care prepare for adulthood.

About the Thrive by 25 Series

The document kicks off a series devoted to highlighting both the challenges and opportunities facing youth ages 14 through 24. It is also part of the Casey Foundation’s Thrive by 25® efforts, which are a set of investments focused on promoting basic needs, permanent connections, education and credentials, financial stability and youth leadership for young people.

  • Recommendations
  • Definitions and Sources

Unstable, unsafe housing situations sets youth on a pathway to greater trauma, risk and instability

Youth experiencing homelessness on their own are more likely than their peers in the general population to endure threats to their health, safety and well-being. These threats include:

  • missing school, resulting in higher rates of dropping out, poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system;
  • struggling with mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts;
  • abusing alcohol or drugs;
  • being physically assaulted;
  • being sexually assaulted;
  • being trafficked for sex or labor; and
  • resorting to “survival crime,” including selling drugs, stealing and exchanging sex for basic needs.

Millions of Youth Affected

About 3.5 million young adults ages 18 to 25 and 700,000 youth ages 13 to 17 experience some form of homelessness in a given year, according to Chapin Hall, an independent, nonpartisan policy research center at the University of Chicago.

The Risk of Homelessness Varies

Not all young people experience homeliness at the same rate. Youth who are Black (83% higher), LGBTQ (120% higher) and non-white Hispanic (33% higher) all experience greater rates of homelessness.

Wanted: A Unified Definition of Homelessness

Establishing a unified and inclusive definition of youth homelessness is key. Such work makes data collection, sharing and analysis easier across systems and also helps to improve how quickly and effectively these systems can identify and support youth in need.

Because of differing definitions of homelessness and research methodologies, no single data source paints a complete picture of youth homelessness within the United States.
A youth homelessness response focused almost exclusively on crisis intervention results in missed opportunities to prevent homelessness and its compounding harmful effects for millions of young people each year.

Subscribe to our newsletter to get our data, reports and news in your inbox.

Proven Solutions

A male child in a blue jacket, a woman in a purple t-shirt, and a female child in an orange hoodie pose in front of a brick wall.

We can end the homelessness crisis.

By stabilizing people through shelter, moving them into permanent housing, and

implementing assistance programs to keep them in their housing, we can not only reduce, but

eliminate, homelessness in New York City.

Right To Shelter

Housing-based solutions, prevention & stability.

For homeless people, shelter from the elements can be a matter of life and death. The right to shelter is a vital legal protection for homeless individuals, families and children. Without this crucial safeguard, vulnerable homeless people would be at severe risk of death or injury on the streets and in other public spaces.

More than three decades ago, Coalition for the Homeless won a landmark legal victory that established the right to shelter for homeless people in New York City.

When modern homelessness first emerged in the late 1970s, thousands of homeless New Yorkers were forced to fend for themselves on the streets, in parks, in the subway system and in other public spaces. At that time, hundreds of unsheltered homeless people died each year, many from hypothermia and other cold-related injuries.

In 1979, the founders of Coalition for the Homeless brought a class-action lawsuit,  Callahan v. Carey , against the City and State of New York. The case, which was brought on behalf of homeless men, argued that a constitutional right to shelter existed in New York.

The lawsuit pointed in particular to Article XVII of the New York State Constitution, which declares that “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions….” Article XVII was adopted by New York voters in 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression, and has provided a vital protection to impoverished New Yorkers ever since.

In August 1981, after nearly two years of intensive negotiations,  Callahan v. Carey  was settled as a consent decree, enshrining New York City’s legal right to shelter for homeless men. Two years later, the Coalition brought another lawsuit,  Eldredge v. Koch , which extended the right to shelter to homeless women. And that same year, the Legal Aid Society brought a right-to-shelter lawsuit,  McCain v. Koch , on behalf of homeless families with children.

The right to shelter protects thousands of homeless New Yorkers every day. The fundamental legal protections won by  Callahan v. Carey  and subsequent cases ensure that individuals and families in need have access to shelter from the elements as they regain stability in their lives and seek permanent housing.

Related Research

Callahan v. Carey – New York Stated Supreme Court, plaintiffs’ original complaint (1979)

Callahan v. Carey – New York State Supreme Court, first decision (1979)

Callahan v. Carey – New York State Supreme Court, consent decree (1981)

Since modern homelessness began more than thirty years ago, research and experience have overwhelmingly shown that investments in permanent housing are extraordinarily effective in reducing homelessness — as well as being cost-effective.

Many of the most successful housing-based policies designed to address the homelessness crisis — in particular, permanent supportive housing for individuals living with disabilities and other special needs — were pioneered in New York City and have been replicated throughout the country. Numerous research studies have consistently confirmed that long-term housing assistance not only successfully reduces homelessness — it is also less expensive than shelter and other institutional care. Proven housing-based policies include:

  • Federal housing assistance:  Federal housing programs are one of the most successful housing-based solutions to reduce homelessness. The two largest federal housing programs are public housing and federal housing vouchers, known as Housing Choice Vouchers or Section 8 vouchers. Housing vouchers allow low-income households to rent modest market-rate housing of their choice and provide a flexible subsidy that adjusts with the family’s income over time. Studies show that public housing and federal housing vouchers are highly successful at reducing family homelessness and in ensuring that these families remain stably housed out of the shelter system.
  • Permanent supportive housing:  Pioneered in New York City in the 1980s, permanent supportive housing has now proven to be a successful and cost-effective solution to the homelessness crisis. The supportive housing model combines affordable housing assistance with vital support services for individuals living with mental illness, HIV/AIDS or other serious health problems. Moreover, numerous research studies have shown that permanent supportive housing costs less than other forms of emergency and institutional care. The landmark 1990 City-State “New York/New York Agreement,” which has been renewed twice, is the premier example of a permanent supportive housing initiative that successfully reduced homelessness in New York City and saved taxpayer dollars that would otherwise have been spent on costly shelters and hospitalizations.
  • “Housing first”:  Another proven solution developed in New York City and replicated nationwide is the “housing first” approach to street homelessness, which builds on the success of permanent supportive housing. The “housing first” approach involves moving long-term street homeless individuals — the majority of whom are living with mental illness, substance abuse disorders and other serious health problems — directly into subsidized housing and then linking them to support services, either on-site or in the community. Research studies have found that the majority of long-term street homeless people moved into “housing first” apartments remain stably housed and experience significant improvements in their health problems. Much like permanent supportive housing, the “housing first” approach is far less costly than emergency and institutional care, such as shelters, hospitals and correctional facilities.

The fundamental cause of homelessness is the widening housing affordability gap. In New York City, that gap has widened significantly over the past decades, which have seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of units of affordable rental housing. At the same time that housing affordability has worsened, government at every level has cut back on already-inadequate housing assistance for low-income people and has reduced investments in building and preserving affordable housing. Finally, the weakening of rent regulation laws, which help keep around half of all rental apartments in New York City affordable, has accelerated the loss of low-cost housing. To address New York City’s wide housing affordability gap, the Federal, State and City governments must significantly increase investments in affordable rental housing, with a significant portion targeted to homeless families and individuals. Similarly, strengthening rent regulation laws would preserve affordable housing and protect tenants, allowing them to keep their homes.

State of the Homeless 2021

Research Proves that Federal Housing Programs Work to Reduce Family Homelessness

Supportive Housing as a Cost-Effective Way to Reduce Homeless Shelter Capacity

One essential approach to reducing homelessness is to prevent it. Another is to ensure that formerly homeless families and individuals can maintain housing stability.

There are several programs that have been proven successful in preventing homelessness for low-income families and individuals. One successful approach involves eviction-prevention grants to help tenants at risk of becoming homeless pay back rent and remain in their apartments. As apartment rents continue to rise and earnings for workers at the low end of the pay scale stagnate, more of our neighbors find themselves on the border of eviction. The overwhelming majority are working families who fell behind in their rent after experiencing sudden medical costs, a death in the family or loss of employment. Providing financial assistance for rental arrears helps potentially homeless families stay in their apartments.

Another successful approach to homelessness prevention involves legal services for low-income tenants in housing court. Housing courts and the legal system in general can be extremely intimidating, even more so to families and individuals under financial stress struggling to make ends meet. In New York City, more than 90 percent of tenants in housing court do not have legal representation, while nearly all landlords have lawyers. Programs that provide legal representation in housing court for low-income tenants facing eviction have proven to be successful and cost-effective. Most tenants assisted by these legal services programs are able to remain in their homes and avoid the costly shelter system.

Prevention also involves policies and programs that help vulnerable people fall through the cracks of government bureaucracies. For example, effective discharge planning that includes housing assistance can help youth who are aging out of foster care, or low-income people living with mental illness who are leaving hospitals, or people exiting correction institutions, avoid homelessness.

Once they’ve left homelessness for permanent housing, many formerly homeless families and individuals can benefit from support services to help maintain housing stability. This can include services like job training, child care and community-based counseling services. More fundamentally, enhancing housing stability for poor and low-income renters involves broader policy changes including living-wage jobs; access to affordable health care; and adequate public benefits for people living with disabilities.

Eviction Prevention

The Coalition for the Homeless has an  Eviction Prevention Program  which does cover rental arrears. In order to qualify, you must be in court and have a signed court stipulation.

To schedule an appointment, you must call the Eviction Prevention Hotline at 1-888-850-2712 on Wednesday mornings beginning at 9:30 am.

Ryan Prior

How Shifting Perspectives Can Solve Homelessness in America

A social entrepreneur's new book examines the root causes of homelessness..

Updated November 14, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

  • The Importance of Empathy
  • Find counselling near me
  • Kevin Adler founded the San Francisco-based non-profit Miracle Messages in 2014, in honor of his late uncle.
  • The organization helps the homeless to reunite with lost loved ones and gives direct cash aid.
  • Adler argues that relational poverty, or the loss of close social bonds, is a driver of homelessness.

Kevin F. Adler grew up with an uncle who was experiencing homelessness.

As an adult, that family connection motivated Adler to start Miracle Messages, a non-profit supporting people experiencing homelessness through family reunification efforts, a phone buddy program, a $2.1 million basic income pilot program, and narrative change work.

With poverty researcher Donald Burnes, Adler is co-author of the new book When We Walk By: Forgotten Humanity, Broken Systems, And the Role We All Play in Ending Homelessness in America , released on November 7.

The book ties together a decade of Adler’s work and is a guide for how we can empathetically rethink our notions of homelessness, seeing others not as problems to be fixed, but as people to be loved.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

North Atlantic Books / Used with permission.

What motivated you to start Miracle Messages?

My Uncle Mark had experienced homelessness. For 30 years he lived mostly on the streets of Santa Cruz. I never thought of him as a homeless man. But he was just the beloved member of my family who remembered every birthday and was the guest of honor at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

After he passed away – he was 50 years old and died alone in transitional housing – I started thinking that everyone I'm walking by who's experiencing homelessness is someone’s son or daughter, brother, sister, or maybe some kid’s beloved uncle. I wanted to better understand the stories of the people I was walking by. I realized how little I knew about my own uncle when he wasn't at our Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table.

I ended up just taking a walk down the street in San Francisco around Christmas time going out to everyone I thought who was visibly homeless and asking a very simple question: “Do you have any loved ones you'd like to reconnect with?”

You say we shouldn't lump people together as “the homeless.” Why is it damaging to think of them as one coherent group, or with the same underlying reason for being homeless?

I cited in the book this 1967 primetime documentary by CBS News, called The Homosexuals . And I remember hearing about this, and I thought, we look at that now as antiquated. How ridiculous. How offensive. The diversity of experience of identity and perspective – from gay to lesbian to transgender to bisexual to questioning to queer is a whole rainbow, right?

I think “The homeless” as a monolith is still very pervasive in public perception and media accounts of this issue. There's not much nuance between a mother with children who is escaping a domestic violence situation and a person who has experienced a natural disaster and is still trying to get their life back together after having their house flooded or burned down. It could be someone who has health issues and can't afford to pay for the treatment, or didn't have coverage because of job loss, or lost a loved one who got kicked out of their house, or who has a substance abuse issue.

If I see a person who seems homeless on the street, how should I talk to them?

Have a conversation. I tend to just say, “Hello, how are you? How long have you lived in the area?” If they seem engaging, then I may even ask about family connection, if they have family or friends nearby.

It's helpful to have something on hand to give people that feels tangible. A pair of socks is great. It's one of the most requested items on the streets. Someone who's wearing the same pair of socks – you're on your feet all day, there's inclement weather, you're wearing it day and night – you can get tremendous foot sores. It gets wet with rain. It can be a really messy, nasty thing. So, handing out a pair of socks.

And “Hi, my name is so and so.” I also think it's okay to not engage with everyone you see. There are plenty of people I pass by every day and I don't sit down and have a long in-depth conversation, or even do much more than maybe make eye contact, smile, and nod. What I've learned is it's not about purity testing. There's no absolutism like every person, you must do this.

how to solve the problem of homelessness

What we need to do is take a moment if we disengage or we choose not to, or feel anxious or afraid, take a moment to check in. Why is that? And then take proactive steps to address those reasons.

What kind of change are you seeking with this book?

I wrote the book I wish existed 10 years ago when I started this journey. I came from a place of not knowing much about the issue of homelessness. I cared for and had a personal connection to my uncle, but I wanted to know what I could do. This book is about homelessness, but it's really about us as housed people. What role do we play in maintaining, creating, and allowing a situation like homelessness? What elements, paternalism to exclusion, where cities make it illegal to be homeless? Hyper-individualism, where we assume when we look at someone and they're successful, we say that’s a self-made man or woman. Does that mean someone who's poor or experiencing homelessness: Are they deservedly poor? Have they “self-failed?”

I think understanding the systems that we sit in and that our country maintains that are broken, humanity's shortcomings, and our role in them. As a result of understanding our role in creating some of the issues that we're facing, that can actually be an empowering thing to say, here's what we can do about it. Here's how we can be part of the solution. I'm hoping that this book is informative, but hopeful, that it gives people a sense that change is possible. I feel more hopeful and more optimistic – having gone through the work that I've done over the last decade and writing this book – than I did 10 years ago.

North Atlantic Books / Used with permission

Ryan Prior is a journalist-in-residence at the Century Foundation and author of The Long Haul. He has written for CNN, STAT, The Guardian , and USA Today .

  • Find a Therapist
  • Find a Treatment Center
  • Find a Support Group
  • International
  • New Zealand
  • South Africa
  • Switzerland
  • Asperger's
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Chronic Pain
  • Eating Disorders
  • Passive Aggression
  • Personality
  • Goal Setting
  • Positive Psychology
  • Stopping Smoking
  • Low Sexual Desire
  • Relationships
  • Child Development
  • Therapy Center NEW
  • Diagnosis Dictionary
  • Types of Therapy

November 2023 magazine cover

The people around us have a stronger influence on our decisions and actions than we realize. Here’s what research reveals about our networks’ gravitational force.

  • Coronavirus Disease 2019
  • Affective Forecasting
  • Neuroscience
  • Skip to main content
  • Keyboard shortcuts for audio player

Why can't we stop homelessness? 4 reasons why there's no end in sight

Jennifer Ludden at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., September 27, 2018. (photo by Allison Shelley)

Jennifer Ludden

how to solve the problem of homelessness

A man carries a sleeping bag at a homeless encampment in Portland, Maine, in May, before city workers arrived to clean the area. State officials say a lack of affordable housing is behind a sharp rise in chronic homelessness. Robert F. Bukaty/AP hide caption

A man carries a sleeping bag at a homeless encampment in Portland, Maine, in May, before city workers arrived to clean the area. State officials say a lack of affordable housing is behind a sharp rise in chronic homelessness.

When Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass campaigned last year on reining in homelessness, she laid out bold proposals with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. In April, she told NPR she hoped for a "very significant reduction" this year, especially of people living on the street. But on Monday , Bass said it's become clear that there's simply no end in sight.

"We really need to normalize the fact, unfortunately, that we're living in a crisis," she said at a press conference announcing a renewal of her emergency declaration on homelessness.

The shift in tone comes after both LA and New York City recently declared a record level of homelessness, and other cities have also seen their numbers continue to climb despite considerable attention and spending to give people shelter. It's part of a steady rise around the country since 2016, after years of successfully driving down the number of people without housing.

So what's going on? Advocacy groups and researchers say a big driving force is the decline of affordable housing, a problem decades in the making but one that has grown significantly worse in the past few years. Here are a few ways it's playing out.

1. More people than ever are being housed — but an even higher number are falling into homelessness

About a third of the U.S. homeless population is in California, and the state faces mounting questions about why billions of dollars spent in recent years hasn't reduced the number of people living in cars and encampments. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has asked the state auditor to investigate . A key program in Los Angeles to move people from hotels into permanent housing appears to be struggling .

CalMatters reports that officials across the state are asking how they can do better, even traveling to Texas for guidance.

And yet, those in California and other places around the country can also argue they are helping more people than ever. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority says it has placed more than 20,000 into permanent housing for five years in a row — a significant boost from a decade ago — and that it's doing this faster than it has in the past. Nationally over that time, the inventory of permanent housing available has increased 26% — and it's more than doubled since 2007.

"We've done a lot" to improve how people are placed into housing, says Steve Berg, chief policy officer at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But he says that's only half the equation. "The other half is people losing their housing ... and we have not had any kind of extensive or organized effort on that," he says.

The upshot is that, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, even as record numbers of people are being housed, a greater number of them are falling into homelessness.

Jordan Neely's Killing Turns Spotlight On New York's Crisis Of Homelessness

Consider This from NPR

Jordan neely's killing turns spotlight on new york's crisis of homelessness.

Berg says one key reason is that only 1 in 4 Americans who qualify for a federal housing subsidy actually get it, and that's been the case since he was in law school decades ago. The vast majority of low-income renters must rely on market-rate housing, but the U.S. hasn't built enough housing for more than a decade, since the market crash of 2008. And the shortage is most acute for the lowest income renters — by more than 7 million units , according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

That tight market, combined with the worst inflation in a generation last year, has led to double-digit rent spikes in many places around the U.S.

2. Rents are out of reach for many, and millions of affordable places have disappeared

A landmark new report surveyed thousands of people in California about how they came to be without housing, and researchers conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of them. For most, high rental costs were crucial.

"People just ran out of the ability to pay, whether it happened quickly or slowly," says lead investigator Margot Kushel of the University of California, San Francisco.

Some said they'd had their work hours cut. Others lost a job because of a health crisis. Many crowded in with relatives or friends, who were also likely to be poor and struggling. "And we found that those relationships, when they fell apart, fell apart quickly," Kushel says. "People only had one day's warning" to leave. Even those with their own lease had on average just 10 days to move out.

More renters facing eviction have a right to a lawyer. Finding one can be hard

More renters facing eviction have a right to a lawyer. Finding one can be hard

Their median monthly household income in the six months before they became homeless was $960, she says. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in California is $1,700. Around the country, Kushel says, homelessness rates are highest in places where there is both poverty and high housing costs.

That gap has been growing for decades, as rents have risen faster than wages. Nationally last year, the share of renters spending at least 30% or 50% of their income on housing reached a record high . And some markets have seen a major share of their low-cost rentals disappear.

Over the past decade, the number of rentals under $600 fell by nearly 4 million , according to an analysis by Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The losses happened in every state, because either rents increased, the units were taken off the rental market or buildings were condemned and demolished. Among slightly higher priced rentals, up to $1,000 a month, some 2.5 million more units were lost.

Even with inflation cooling, rents remain too high for many — and are continuing to increase in some places.

3. Zoning laws and local opposition make it hard to build housing for low-income renters

Voters around the country approved spending for more affordable housing last year, and a record number of apartments are under construction. More places are also loosening zoning laws — some of which date back to segregation — to allow more multifamily buildings in residential neighborhoods. Housing experts say all this is needed to help ease the tight market and bring down prices over time.

The U.S. needs more affordable housing — where to put it is a bigger battle

The U.S. needs more affordable housing — where to put it is a bigger battle

With a shortage in the millions of units, though, that could take a very long time. And in most places it's still a major challenge to build affordable housing. "Neighbors will say, 'We don't want low-income people living here,' and they'll stop the housing from being built," says Berg, with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Even housing that does get built and is billed as affordable, he says, isn't always cheap enough for those who need it most. "It's really about having enough deeply affordable housing so that people with the lowest incomes can move into the housing," Berg says. "And if they lose that housing, they can find another place to live."

4. Pandemic aid programs that helped keep many people housed are winding down

An annual count last year did find a pause in the relentless rise of homelessness. Biden administration officials, among others, credit the sweeping array of pandemic aid programs that limited evictions, helped people pay rent and boosted other financial supports. Princeton's Eviction Lab calculates such policies cut eviction filings in half.

Those programs have largely ended in many places and are winding down in others. Beyond having to pay current rent, it means some people also may be expected to pay down rental debt that accumulated during the COVID-19 emergency. Many link the end of such protections to a recent rise in evictions , well above pre-pandemic levels in some places.

Of course, there are other reasons. Some 19% of those surveyed in the UCSF study became homeless after leaving institutions such as prison, and finding employment and housing with a criminal record is difficult. Advocates say there's also need for more addiction and mental health treatment, though it's most effective once someone is safely housed.

But again, the overriding problem, they say, is the dire lack of places low-income people can afford to live.

"There's really no way to solve homelessness without seriously addressing this," says Kushel, the UCSF researcher. "Otherwise, we're going to be compelled to continue to spend huge amounts of money managing an increasingly out of control crisis."

  • affordable housing
  • homelessness
  • Need to solve an intractable problem? Collaboration is hard but worth it.

In This Section

  • How to keep ‘TLDR’ syndrome from killing your policy proposal
  • Making and communicating public health policy under fire
  • AI can be democracy’s ally, but not if it works for Big Tech 
  • The more indigenous nations self govern, the more they succeed
  • If you don’t have multiracial democracy, you don’t have democracy at all
  • Why smart infrastructure is a smart investment—even for Republicans—in an era of historic public works spending
  • Transitioning to clean power without workers absorbing the shock

Complex problems facing cities like homelessness and climate change can only be solved by multiple organizations collaborating across boundaries, say Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Jorrit de Jong and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. 

Featuring jorrit de jong and amy edmondson, november 9, 2023 42 minutes and 21 seconds.

Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Jorrit de Jong and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson say the big, intractable challenges facing city leaders today are too complex to be addressed by any one agency or government department. Complex challenges like the shortage of economic opportunity and affordable housing, homelessness, the effects of the climate crisis, and crime, can only be solved by multiple organizations working together. But that’s easier said than done. Bringing together government agencies, nonprofits, private businesses, academia, and the public into successful collaborations can be a huge challenge. Different people bring different agendas and goals. They don’t necessarily trust each other. Sometimes they can’t even agree on what the problem actually is, and they fail before even getting started. In a recent study, de Jong and Edmondson found that the most successful problem-solving collaborations have a number of things in common, including building a culture of safety and trust and being empowered to try, fail, and learn from mistakes. Sometimes, they say, the key can be just finding a place to start. 

Episode Notes:

Jorrit de Jong is the Emma Bloomberg Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School. He is director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. His research and teaching focus on the challenges of making the public sector more effective, efficient, equitable, and responsive to social needs. A specialist in experiential learning, he has taught strategic management and public problem-solving in degree and executive education programs at HKS and around the world. He is also faculty co-chair of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a joint program of Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, the world’s most comprehensive effort to advance effective problem-solving and innovation through executive education, research, curriculum development, and fieldwork in cities. 

He is also Academic Director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. In that capacity, he launched the  Innovation Field Lab , an experiential learning, executive education, and action-oriented research project working with 15 cities in Massachusetts and New York to help them leverage data, community engagement and innovation to revitalize distressed and underinvested neighborhoods. He holds a PhD in Public Policy and Management from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, as well as a master's in philosophy and a master's in public administration from Leiden University. He has written extensively, including the books “The State of Access: Success and Failure of Democracies to Create Equal Opportunities;” “Agents of Change: Strategy and Tactics for Social Innovation;” and “Dealing with Dysfunction: Innovative Problem Solving in the Public Sector.”  

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society. Edmondson has been recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers since 2011, and most recently was ranked No. 1 in 2021. She also received that organization’s Breakthrough Idea Award in 2019, and Talent Award in 2017.   

She studies teaming, psychological safety, and organizational learning, and her articles have been published in numerous academic and management outlets. Her 2019 book, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth,” has been translated into 15 languages. Her prior books: “Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate and compete in the knowledge economy;” “Teaming to Innovate;” and “Extreme Teaming” explore teamwork in dynamic organizational environments.  Edmondson’s latest book, “Right Kind of Wrong,” builds on her prior work on psychological safety and teaming to provide a framework for thinking about, discussing, and practicing the science of failing well. Edmondson received her PhD in organizational behavior, AM in psychology, and AB in engineering and design from Harvard University.  

Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of  Communications and Public Affairs is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. 

The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes . Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg , Delane Meadows , and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.  

For more information please visit our webpage or contact us at [email protected] .

This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Preroll: (Ralph Ranalli): PolicyCast explores evidence-based policy solutions to the big problems we’re facing in our society and our world. This podcast is a production of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

Jorrit de Jong (Intro): Let me give you one example, homelessness. You can think of that as one big problem, but if you break it down into smaller subsets of problems, you see that some people experiencing homelessness are dealing with mental illness and others are the victims of domestic violence, and yet others are experiencing substance abuse issues and others may have lost their house and are living below the poverty line. When you disaggregate a problem, you see a variety of different causes and consequences, but also it becomes very clear that, for some parts of the problem, you need the social services department, for another part of the problem, you need affordable housing, and for another part of the problem, you may need law enforcement or addiction help.  

Amy Edmondson (Intro): The problems can be roughly referred to as wicked problems, which are the kinds of problems that have incomplete, contradictory, and shifting requirements. They do not have easy answers and they impact different groups in different ways. They're just by their very nature hard to solve, and so you need the different perspectives both for the innovation and the creative problem solving that that allows, but also for the acceptability of the solution. If people aren't participating, then they're unlikely to appreciate and effectively use or implement solutions that just came in from outside and, "Here, we think this is going to fix your problem for you." 

Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Cities, like our world, are complex and interconnected places. So it’s hardly a surprise that our most intractable problems—lack of economic opportunity and affordable housing, homelessness, the effects of the climate crisis, crime—are that way too, complicated and seemingly hopelessly tangled, like that box of extensions cords you’re too afraid to bring up from the basement. Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Jorrit de Jong and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson say the big challenges facing city leaders today have another thing in common: they’re too tough to be addressed by any one agency or government department and can only be solved by multiple organizations working together. But that’s easier said than done. Bringing together city departments, nonprofits, private business, academia, and the public into successful collaborations can be a huge challenge. Different people bring different agendas and goals. They don’t necessarily trust each other. Sometimes they can’t even agree on what the problem actually is and they fail before even getting started. In a recent study, de Jong and Edmondson found that the most successful problem-solving collaborations have a number of things in common, including building a culture of safety and trust and being willing to try, fail, and learn from mistakes. Sometimes it's even just finding a place to start. Jorrit de Jong is the director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University and academic director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, whose books and writings on teamwork in successful organizations have been translated into 15 languages. They’re here with me today. 

Ralph Ranalli: Amy, Jorrit, welcome to PolicyCast. 

Jorrit de Jong: Thanks for having us. 

Amy Edmondson: Great to be here. 

Ralph Ranalli: We're talking today about cross-boundary collaboration, which I think is a term that a lot of people aren’t familiar with. Well maybe they're more familiar with the general concept, but can we start with a little bit about its origins in the context of solving intractable problems in cities and why it's important? Jorrit do you want to start us off? 

Jorrit de Jong: Sure. Well, the main thing about cross-boundary collaboration is that it is something that is necessary because the problems that we face in society today are multifaceted, they're complex, they're volatile and no single organization, unfortunately, is able to tackle them. When we talk about homelessness or climate change or poverty or crime, we need multiple organizations to work together to come up with a good diagnosis of what the problem is and then to generate ideas for action and then to implement those ideas. 

Ralph Ranalli: Amy? 

Amy Edmondson: Let me just even say something more basic, which is what's a boundary? I mean, a boundary is a line between groups. The kinds of groups that Jorrit and I studied include expertise groups, different sectors, different employers, different organizations, even different levels on a hierarchy. Having people come across those boundaries to do something together is what we studied. 

Ralph Ranalli: Right. The stakeholders are usually government, nonprofits and NGOs, the business community, and academia. Is there anything else on that list? 

Amy Edmondson: Well, I think, occasionally, citizens, community. 

Ralph Ranalli: Amy, you've written four books on the subject of teamwork including one where you said: "The work done in the modern organization is less and less about looking inward and creating strong teams inside a company and more about teaming across boundaries that are often in flux. What’s causing that shift to companies and organizations needing to look outwards? 

Amy Edmondson: Organizations are more and more dependent on the cooperation of and the contributions of people from other organizations. That can be as simple as suppliers and customer organizations where the degree to which you can collaborate effectively across those boundaries matters for the effective delivery of services and goods in supply chains of all kinds. That's just one ordinary way of doing business that involves that. Beyond that, there's a real interest for companies and government organizations and others to be working together to solve some of the more thorny problems that society faces. These are the kinds of problems that cannot be solved by one organization alone or even one sector working alone, so there's just more need for that kind of reaching out, reaching across, and collaborating. 

Ralph Ranalli: Jorrit, you're a leading scholar on collective governance to address multi-stakeholder problems. What are some examples of the problems that either can only be solved by or addressed or best addressed with cross-boundary collaboration? 

Jorrit de Jong: Yeah. I would say that there's almost no significant problem facing cities today that can be solved by a single organization. Local government obviously offers a variety of basic services and is responsible for law enforcement in a variety of different areas, but most of the problems— whether it's crime or economic development or homelessness—require multiple types of expertise, multiple skill sets, resources that cannot be offered by one organization alone and, therefore, if you really want to make progress on these issues, you can't go it alone. 

It makes sense that we have silos within government agencies. Division of labor is, of course, a very basic principle of organizational design. You can't do everything all at once, and therefore we've created departments, a department for buildings, a department for parks and recreation, a department of police, fire department and so forth, human services, but those departments are focused on the types of activities, types of services that they're responsible for. What we increasingly find is that the way problems manifest themselves in the real world requires interventions, actions and resources from multiple departments. Even within governments, you need cross-boundary collaboration where the boundaries are the departmental boundaries. 

Let me give you one example, homelessness. You can think of that as one big problem, but if you break it down into smaller subsets of problems, you see that some people experiencing homelessness are dealing with mental illness and others are the victims of domestic violence, and yet others are experiencing substance abuse issues and others may have lost their house and are living below the poverty line. When you disaggregate a problem, you see a variety of different causes and consequences, but also it becomes very clear that, for some parts of the problem, you need the social services department, for another part of the problem, you need affordable housing, and for another part of the problem, you may need law enforcement or addiction help.  

The way problems manifest themselves in cities, it's very varied. It varies from city to city. It varies from time to time. And it definitely depends on how you look at it. The way you look at it can inform the way you try to solve it. What we're claiming in this study is that the nature of these problems requires a more comprehensive, a broader, more holistic look and, therefore, it requires multiple organizations to look at it together and then to solve it together. 

Amy Edmondson: Right, and I'll just double down on that idea, the nature of the problems. I mean, the nature of the problems can be roughly referred to as wicked problems, which are the kinds of problems that have incomplete, contradictory, and shifting requirements. They do not have easy answers and they impact different groups in different ways. They're just by their very nature hard to solve, and so you need the different perspectives both for the innovation and the creative problem solving that that allows, but also for the acceptability of the solution. If people aren't participating, then they're unlikely to appreciate and effectively use or implement solutions that just came in from outside and, "Here, we think this is going to fix your problem for you." 

Ralph Ranalli: Right. I think we all have this lovely ideal of what collaboration looks like, right? But one of the things that struck me when I was reading your study is how difficult it is and how significant the barriers are that need to be broken down. On the one hand, we have a nice picture in your mind of people holding hands and singing kumbaya and everyone bringing their own expertise to bear on a problem in this lovely holistic way, but on the other you identified the process of just getting started as something that's difficult to the point where you used the term "disorientation" to talk about early phase of trying different groups together. Can you talk a bit about that notion of disorientation and why it's so difficult to get traction with cross-boundary collaborations? 

Jorrit de Jong: Absolutely. You may know the expression, "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." If you are the Department of, let's say, Parks and Recreation, you look at a problem from that perspective and you think, "Oh, the problem to solve is to get this park clean and safe, and you may look at the people experiencing homelessness in that park as people that need to be removed, but if you are from the Department of Social Services, you look at the people in the park and you think, "Hey, we need to help these individuals," get them into housing, stabilize their condition and so forth, and you don't care as much about the park. Both are very legitimate perspectives, but very often—and this is what we found in a number of different studies that we conducted over the past 10 years—is that there are, in almost every cross-boundary collaboration phases, three major barriers.  

The very first one is how to define the problem. How do we define the problem in a way that generates sufficient consensus, not full consensus, but sufficient consensus to actually start working on it, because, if you don't see yourself in that problem definition, you're like, "What am I doing here?" It needs to be sufficiently inclusive to get the right parties on board and to get started. The second barrier is actually team building. Amy is, of course, an expert on this. It requires a certain kind of psychological safety—and maybe Amy you can say a little bit more about that—to actually engage in work where you don't know the problem yet and where you don't know the solution yet and where you don't maybe trust each other or understand each other enough yet to work together. 

The final barrier that we always find is multiple accountability challenges. You're committed to solving the problem and to working together, yet you're also on the payroll of your organization and, at the end of the day, your boss or your constituents will hold you accountable for the siloed organizational task and not the work that you did with other parties, and so there's this natural tension that occurs. 

Amy Edmondson: Yes. I mean, I'll build on that by saying, you mentioned psychological safety, and that's something that research, including my own, has shown is a really important factor in teamwork in general. And it's because it's not easy to be candid, it's not easy to speak up with a wild idea that people might laugh at, and it's not easy to ask for help if you don't understand something. Nobody likes to admit their ignorance or advertise their incompetence. I use those terms almost tongue in cheek, but we can naturally think, "Oh, someone will think I'm an idiot because I don't know something." It's much easier to hold back, wait and see. And so there's that challenge of speaking up. 

Roughly speaking, there's psychological, I mean, there's many psychological barriers, and you alluded to several, but just, "I don't maybe trust you because you come from a different department or a different background. I don't feel safe speaking up, honestly, candidly." There are so many things that get in the way of the innovation we're talking about, so it's much, much easier to fail than to succeed in this domain, and then layered on top of that are what I would call technological or logistical hurdles related to the jargon, different expertise areas, and different sectors have different jargon. The alphabet soup is a really big deal in the public sector and private sector, and so you can have people talking right by each other and really just struggling to have the effortless collaboration that you envision in this kumbaya moment that you recalled. You can't underestimate both the logistical, technological challenges and the psychological, sociological challenges. 

Ralph Ranalli: Sure. If you just think about the groups that you're talking about who are trying to collaborate with each other. One example is you've got nonprofits who are probably distrustful of for-profits. A lot of the time, that's a common nonprofit worldview. Then you've got for-profit businesses who are often distrustful of government, and … 

Amy Edmondson: ... and vice versa. 

Ralph Ranalli: Exactly, and vice versa. You talked about in the study about finding an entry point. Can you talk about that, Amy, maybe starting out with what is an entry point and how does one help you break through those initial difficulties and get a collaborative process moving? 

Amy Edmondson: Yeah. I guess what I will have to admit is that this is more descriptive, and I think it makes good sense theoretically and practically, but I'll tell you what we found. What we found was, as I alluded to earlier, that most, all the teams struggle, but the ones that end up making traction in their wicked problems and their challenging problems are the ones, now this will sound almost tautological, but they're the ones who found an entry point. There's a point at which, if you find an entry point, you get enough momentum to keep going through the hard work of teaming up across boundaries and making progress in new territory, and it's easy not to find one. 

What is an entry point? It took different forms in different projects, but we created this acronym, M-A-A-P. It means they found some way to get started that was meaningful. People could agree that this was connected to our broader goal even though it isn't a solution to our broader goal. It was meaningful. It was acceptable, meaning, different constituents would find it an okay thing to be working on. It was actionable, right? Again, not a magic wand or big solution to everything, but it was something you could go try, and it was provisional. I mean, it was almost deliberately seen by all as a starting point that, as we learn more together, we will get more clear, we will get better at making progress. 

Ralph Ranalli: At this point, I'd really like to if we can get into some concrete examples. In your study, you used the example of Manchester, New Hampshire. There were 10 other groups that were a big part of your study. Can you talk about how the group in Manchester, New Hampshire, found its entry point and what problem they were tackling? 

Jorrit de Jong: Absolutely. It's a great story, and I have to say it's not a story that is finished. It's a work in progress. I think it's fair to say that most of these problems are not solved. You can make progress. You can mitigate the problem, but there's only one way, as Amy suggested, to get started, which is to get started, but then you have to figure out and agree with this whole group, "Where do we start and how do we start?" There's often a theme that we see around the ideal is the enemy of good, right? We think we know enough about the problem to say that any tiny step in the right direction is not sufficient, because it will not solve the problem or it will not make progress fast enough, but what we've found in this study is that, if you start and focus on something small but meaningful, and if you make sure that you learn from that first step, you will see the next step and the next step and the next step. 

In Manchester, New Hampshire, they were facing multiple crises, homelessness on one the hand and opioid abuse on the other. There was overlap, but the city did not have data on how exactly these problems were intertwined, who was experiencing what problem or what condition and how to intervene as a city. Now, the parties in Manchester included social service providers, caregiving organizations, the police, fire departments, the Department of Public Works, but also the business community, especially downtown where business owners were complaining about people sleeping on the streets and panhandling. 

The mayor, Joyce Craig, really was worried about the situation and did not have necessarily enough resources for affordable housing or for the help, but she did know that just banning panhandling wasn't going to solve the problem. It's like fighting a symptom and not addressing the underlying problems. However, the business community was primarily interested in addressing that part of the problem because it mattered most to them and to their customers. What they agreed to do is to say, "Okay, we are going to think of panhandling as an entry point, but under one condition, that if we discourage panhandling, then we will make sure that the individuals that are being removed from the downtown area will be directed to treatment, to shelter, to social workers and so forth, and we will learn from what they're experiencing, what their needs are, and then we will use that to generate new funding and additional services so that we can make progress on the larger issue and the underlying problems."

Even though it looks like fighting a symptom to some and solving a problem to others, it allowed the group to start to work together, to look at the problem together, to learn from what works and what doesn't work together. And because they formed a coalition as such, they had a much better case to make to the state and to other funders. A few years later, they changed the structure in their governments. They have much more cross-silo collaboration in their government because they did find out that about 50% of the people who were homeless also were struggling with addiction problems. They changed their approach to helping the individuals, but they also helped create better conditions in downtown at the same time. 

Now, has it been solved? Absolutely not, but is the city in a better place to tackle the problem? Absolutely, and that is basically what we're seeing in all of those teams that are making progress. How they're getting traction is they start somewhere that is imperfect, but they learn, and as they learn they get to a better place. 

Amy Edmondson: One thing to just underline strongly here is that we've talked about, in a sense, to get started, you have to get started. And that might sound at first glance like a willpower problem where we just have to take the first step. I don't want to underplay how creative the first step was. 

This isn't a matter of: "It's obvious what the first step is. Let's just do it." This is truly a matter of: "We don't have a clue what the first step is because it's a wicked problem with multi-dimensional, multifaceted challenges." It's actually a team creative project to figure out an entry point, something that we can do that's meaningfully connected to our broader, ambitious goal that again is acceptable and something fundamentally we can learn from together. 

Jorrit de Jong: One other example that I really love, and not just because it's from my home country, the Netherlands, is the problem that they had in the City of Breda with illegal grow houses. They were growing marijuana. 

The idea was, or the suspicion was, that organized crime was exploiting or coercing low-income residents to use their attics and basements for this illegal activity. The police and the prosecutor's office had been trying the traditional law enforcement approach, but the community wouldn't want to work with them because they were afraid or didn't trust law enforcement.  

Then they started working within a utility company that had been experiencing electricity theft because grow houses take a lot of electricity. They also worked with the City of Breda, which was interested in community engagement, and they worked with a tax office who was interested in money laundering related to organized crime. They came up with a very different approach, and they found their entry points were focused on fire safety, because everybody cares about fire safety because your family needs to be safe, and so- 

Amy Edmondson: Neighbor could be- 

Jorrit de Jong: Your neighbors could be having a grow house and create that risk for you because they're using the electricity and the wiring catches fire because of the overuse, the overload. They started knocking on doors and said , "Hey, here's what you need to know about fire safety. If you smell this smell," and they had a sample with them, "then you might be at risk, and so you need to report that." That was a way to build trust with the community. Well, did it solve organized crime? Did it end illegal grow houses? No, but at least they found a way, literally, into the houses, an entry point, but also into the problem and, from there, they learned and adjusted their approach. I think that's another example of not giving up on the goal, the ultimate goal, but just structuring the process of learning. 

Ralph Ranalli: It's wonderful when these things succeed, but they don't all succeed. What have you found about when they fail, why they fail? 

Amy Edmondson: In a way, I mean, this is a bit tautological, but they fail because they fail to overcome the very real hurdles. These challenges are both creative challenges, they're political, they're effortful. There's lots and lots of pushback and barriers. They're overwhelming, so it's almost the assumed outcome that they will struggle anyway. 

Ralph Ranalli: You talk in the study about inherent paradoxes. Can you expound on that a little bit? 

Jorrit de Jong: Sure. There's a chicken-and-egg issue which is interesting to think about. For busy people and organizations with limited resources to commit to a collaboration, they need to know what's in it for them or why it would be important for them to participate. But you don't know that until you actually start looking at the problem together.  

For example, the growing house case did not include the fire department at first. It did include the tax office. Now, when you would have asked the fire department, "Hey, do you want to go chase organized crime in this neighborhood?" They're like, "Why would we do that?" They're like, "We got fires to put out. Organized crime is not in our job description," but because they learned more about the problem, and one part of it was the fire risk, then it became more relevant for the fire to be included. 

Here's the other thing. The tax office was less relevant, and you can imagine this poor tax inspector who would go to you about like, "What have you been doing lately, John?" and then, "Well, I've been finding illegal grow houses and detecting fire risk." Well, that's not your job description either, so you can see that, because all these problems were multifaceted, that a case has to be made for involvement and inclusion and participation. The inherent paradox there is that you need to have a broader group to work and look at the problem, but in order to get that group to look at the problem, you need to have a sufficient idea of what you're doing. That cannot be resolved one way or the other, other than just getting started and trying something out. 

Amy Edmondson: Yeah, and people who are willing to just be operating slightly outside their normal job description and willing to be creative and not worry so much about: "Is this my boss' number one priority right now?" because they glimpse an opportunity to make a real difference in something that speaks to them and matters to the community. 

Ralph Ranalli: Right, and you go back to the trust issue, too. You need to trust enough to have collaboration, but you also build trust through collaboration, so we're back to chickens and eggs. 

Amy Edmondson: It's chickens and eggs for sure. I'm not sure it's paradoxes. To me, the word paradox is overused. I shouldn't maybe say that, but it technically means two things that can't both be true at the same time, versus I think what we're talking about is a little bit more interesting and subtle, which is it's hard to get started and it's hard to know which comes first, the chicken or the egg. 

Ralph Ranalli: I love that you quoted the philosopher John Dewey and his saying that: “A problem well put is a problem half solved.” But that's not necessarily easy either. What happens when you can't even agree on the problem? I live in a suburb of Boston and our local political dividing line basically breaks down along the issue of affordable housing. One group identifies the lack of affordable housing as the problem, where the other basically views the impulse to build more affordable housing as the problem. What happens when you can’t agree on  whether a problem actually exists?  

Amy Edmondson: In a way, it's everything. It's the frame. With that frame, if you get stuck and stay in that frame, you will get nowhere. That is a guarantee because neither side is going to willingly change their view of the problem. What's needed is something that both sides care about, the future, the children and the future, or things along those lines, access to our schools, what have you.  

I won't try to solve that particular problem in your particular area, but the only way to break out and go forward is by finding an overarching shared goal or value that we both care about and then we get to start to take baby, creative steps toward what might this look like to help us resolve some of that very real tension. 

Jorrit de Jong: I would also say that a lot of this work was informed by Bloomberg Harvard City leadership program that Amy and I both teach in. It's a program for mayors and their senior teams. Mayors are often the ones nominating a problem for action. They run on a campaign platform, and they want to do something about inclusive growth or climate resilience or crime, and then, when they create a task force or try to build a coalition around that problem, it is important for them to know that, yes, they need to say, "This is the problem that I care about."  

But they also, as authorizers of this work, need to keep an open mind and be flexible because, if they're not flexible, the group will be reluctant to zoom in on one particular entry point that doesn't immediately make sense. Knowing what the nature is of this work—going back to Amy's notion earlier about the wicked problem—acknowledging and being explicit that you expect the group to learn rather than to deliver on the specific thing you're asking them to do.  What we've seen is that the role of authorizers is often understudied. One of the things that we see in the groups is those groups that felt like they had agency—they had the license to innovate and the permission to learn and develop as they went along—those groups were more successful in making progress. In our executive education program for mayors, both Amy and I spent a lot of time like, "How can leaders create the conditions for these diverse teams to do their work and to make meaningful progress?" 

Ralph Ranalli: I was interested in the personal aspect of when these collaborations start achieving success. What have you seen in terms of transformations in people's attitudes and outlooks when all of a sudden things start clicking and positive things start happening? What have you seen in terms of changes in the participants once this cross-boundary collaboration starts working? 

Amy Edmondson: I'll just say more abstractly, and then maybe Jorrit can give more concrete observations, but more abstractly, they start to feel like a "we" rather than, "I'm here. I'm from tax," or, "I'm from fire," or, "I'm from city hall.” They start to be part of the homelessness task force. They start to feel like each other as a mighty resource and that they start to care about each other, they start to care about their work together. 

Jorrit de Jong: Yeah. A colleague of ours, Ronnie Heifetz, uses the metaphor of a vegetable soup where you can throw different types of vegetables in a pan and add cold water, and then these vegetables will remain the same thing and there's no blending. You can also turn up the heat and cook them to pieces, and it's like one ratatouille, but the idea is to raise the temperature enough so that the individual vegetables still keep their taste and their shape, but they also start to form like a vegetable soup. Very often, we think of these processes of cross-boundary collaboration as pressure cookers. Without heat, there will be no dinner, but with too much heat, there will also be no dinner or it won't taste very well. Getting the temperature right, raising the pressure, creating a holding environment if you like around a group, which is what we do in our Executive Education programs, we bring people together and support them as they engage with the work and with each other and regulate the temperature so that they get to a level of productivity and trust that is required to make progress. 

Ralph Ranalli: You also teach this in the Executive Education program. Why is it important to connect with that audience? 

Amy Edmondson: I mean, I think, in professional schools, certainly in the Kennedy School and the Business School at Harvard, our goal is knowledge for action. Our research is always in the back of our minds. Sometimes, in the very front of our minds is how would this work? What can we learn about how to help people in tough jobs, tough leadership roles? How can we help them do a better job in achieving their results? 

One of the ways that we both share, but also develop our insights is in the executive classroom. We are teaching there, but we are also learning from them, from their feedback, from their examples, from their stories. We use the case method quite deliberately so that we have some principles that we're trying to convey and make them memorable and sticky through the stories, but we also want to hear their stories and how they've seen this work in practice, so that allows us to learn, that allows them to learn. 

Jorrit de Jong: Yeah, I would say I fully agree with that. A lot of the research questions come from practice and come from our interactions with mayors and their senior leaders and others. The work that we do at Harvard is  only good if it's both rigorous and relevant. If it's only rigorous and not relevant, we wouldn't want to do it because why? 

Amy Edmondson: If it's only relevant and not rigorous, then we don't feel so good either. 

Jorrit de Jong: Exactly, because you don't want to be sharing just ideas that are not rooted in research, right? That's why Amy and I and the whole group of authors, when we learned early on that mayors were struggling with cross-boundary collaboration and forming coalitions and task forces, we said like, "That's a really interesting research question." Amy had done research for many years on teaming and increasingly on wicked problem solving. I had been doing a lot of work on collaborative governance, but mostly at national or even international levels. We felt like, if we could combine our expertise and bring in some other colleagues, Hannah Riley Bowles, Eva Flavia Martinez Orbegozo, Jan Rivkin, and Mark Moore, then we could actually fill that gap. 

The studies that we've recently published are the first fruits of that labor, and we immediately bring it back to the classroom. When we teach now, we refer to these studies and we say, "Well, we don't have the definitive answer to the question how to do this, but we have some ideas that may help you guide the work as you go along." 

Amy Edmondson: We see if it resonates. Does it resonate? 

Ralph Ranalli: We've been talking about using this approach at the city level, but a lot of the problems that cities are facing are national and international in scope: climate readiness, the green energy transition, migration. Does the cross-boundary collaboration approach scale up? 

Jorrit de Jong: Well, we haven't done that research yet, but I think what we are seeing in the cross-sector collaborations in cities, those themes are not necessarily only happening in cities. It's much more about different professions, disciplines, organizational realities trying to work together than that it is about city-specific issues. Obviously, at the national level and at the international level, you have many more wicked problems, and some are the same, climate change, poverty, drugs, crime. Anywhere where people try to make progress on wicked problems, you will see the same types of mechanisms, barriers and patterns. Therefore, our hypothesis is that this applies to other contexts as well, but we haven't done that research yet. 

Amy Edmondson: We haven't done that research, but I think, if you look to any effective body that has trudged, made a dent in something, maybe child labor or human trafficking at a more global scale versus a local city scale, you will always find the requirement of different areas of expertise more often than not coming from multiple organizations, the NGOs, governments, business, large business players. Obviously, not all of these efforts are successful, but if they're serious, they will nearly always involve cross-boundary collaboration. 

Ralph Ranalli: We've reached the point in the podcast where we put the policy in PolicyCast, which is where I'm going to ask you for some specific recommendations, and in this case I think policy recommendations. Do you have any  policies that would encourage or make it easier to create successful cross-boundary collaborations or to help them along the road to success? What policies could turbocharge this process, which has shown that it can make a dent in big and intractable problems? 

Amy Edmondson: This is where I'm not a policy person, so I could just have a free ride here, but I will say one thing. I mean, one policy thing that occurs to me is making funding available. I think, oftentimes, funding is only available for things that are really clear cut and proven and have been done before. Making seed funding available for this kind of exploratory work is something that I think could be a policy issue. 

Jorrit de Jong: I don't think it is a policy question. I think it's a leadership question and a management question. What is helpful for creating and sustaining cross-boundary collaboration is for authorizers to be supportive of the process of, as Amy calls it, execution as learning, so try something out, come back and hold teams accountable for learning.  

What I always tell authorizers is that, if you say, "Well, have you fixed the problem?" then everybody is going to be very fixed on delivering exactly what they think the authorizer expects. And that may not be the best thing for solving the problem. What you have to do as an authorizer is to say, "Well, I expect you to do something" and whether it works or not … 

Amy Edmondson:  … learn from it … 

Jorrit de Jong:  ... it doesn't matter, but you have to come back and tell me, "This is what I've done. This is what worked. This is what didn't work. This is what I've learned or what we have learned, and this is the next step that we're thinking of taking, and we want authorization for that next iteration."  

I think that is a very different way of providing guidance and support and sponsorship than many authorizers are used to. I would say, if that's something, if you're a mayor or if you're a secretary, the national government or if you're a CEO even, then that's the difference in how you create the conditions for this type of work to be successful. 

Ralph Ranalli: Great. Well, I would just like to thank you both. This was a really interesting conversation that I enjoyed very much. Thanks for your time. 

Amy Edmondson: Thanks for having us. 

Ralph Ranalli (Outro) : Thanks for listening. Please join us for our next episode, when Harvard Kennedy School Professor David Deming and Harvard University Economics Professor Raj Chetty will discuss their research on how legacy preference affects college admissions.  

And please subscribe to PolicyCast on your favorite podcasting app so you don’t miss any of our great upcoming episodes. If you have a comment or a suggestion for the team here at PolicyCast, please drop us an email at [email protected]—we’d love to hear from you. And until next time, remember to speak bravely, and listen generously. 

More from PolicyCast

How american cities can prepare for an increasingly destructive climate, local news is civic infrastructure. and it’s crumbling. can we save it , the pandemic’s silver lining—a treasure trove of data on social protection programs.

  • Entertainment
  • Photography
  • Press Releases
  • Israel-Hamas War
  • Russia-Ukraine War
  • Latin America
  • Middle East
  • Asia Pacific
  • Election 2024
  • AP Top 25 College Football Poll
  • Movie reviews
  • Book reviews
  • Financial Markets
  • Business Highlights
  • Financial wellness
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Social Media

Nonprofits making progress in tackling homelessness among veterans, but challenges remain

A nonprofit in Atlanta that started in 2008 with a single two-bedroom house has expanded into a campus dedicated to both transitional and permanent housing for dozens of previously homeless veterans. (Nov. 11) (AP video: Sharon Johnson)

In this photo provided by Gabriella Rico, Vietnam War-era Army veteran Harold Tilson Jr., stands in a room on the campus of the Veterans Empowerment Organization in Atlanta, Nov. 10, 2023. Tilson was homeless earlier in the year, but has spent the past three months in transitional housing at VEO and hopes to next year have a place of his own to live. (Gabriella Rico via AP)

  • Copy Link copied

In this photo provided by Gabriella Rico, volunteers from Home Depot work to build a garden and water feature on the campus of the Veterans Empowerment Organization in Atlanta, Nov. 10, 2023. Company employees have volunteered more than 1.5 million hours in service to veterans, including building or repairing 60,000 houses and facilities for former service members. (Gabriella Rico via AP)

Veterans Empowerment Organization CEO Tony Kimbrough points at design plans for a two-story building that will house 20 formerly homeless veterans, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 in Atlanta. The Atlanta-based nonprofit houses dozens of veterans and helps put them on a path toward employment and housing independence. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

One of 10 transitional housing rooms for formerly homeless veterans at the headquarters of Veterans Empowerment Organization plans is seen Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 in Atlanta. The Atlanta-based nonprofit houses dozens of veterans and helps put them on a path toward employment and housing independence.(AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

This photo shows one of the the Veterans Empowerment Organization apartment buildings that offer permanent housing for 41 veterans, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 in Atlanta. Veterans pay a small amount of rent, with funds from the Department of Veterans Affairs making up the difference. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

Veterans Empowerment Organization CEO Tony Kimbrough on Oct. 31, 2023, looks over the site on which a two-story building will soon be built to house 20 formerly homeless veterans in Atlanta. The Atlanta-based nonprofit houses dozens of veterans and helps put them on a path toward employment and housing independence. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

how to solve the problem of homelessness

ATLANTA (AP) — Along a busy Atlanta residential road, a 68-year-old Vietnam War-era Army veteran has found what he calls a “match made in heaven.”

Harold Tilson Jr. found himself homeless earlier this year but for the past few months has been living in transitional housing run by the nonprofit Veterans Empowerment Organization, or VEO. It provides emergency and permanent housing for dozens of previously homeless military veterans.

“If you’re homeless and you need help, you couldn’t ask for a better place to go because they take care of just about everything,” Tilson said.

It’s part of a years-long effort by government agencies and nonprofits around the country to address homelessness among veterans. Since January 2020, the numbers of homeless veterans have fallen 11% and have gone down 55% over the past 13 years, according to a government count. That’s in sharp contrast with the general homeless population.

This photo shows one of the the Veterans Empowerment Organization apartment buildings that offer permanent housing for 41 veterans, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 in Atlanta. Veterans pay a small amount of rent, with funds from the Department of Veterans Affairs making up the difference. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

Authorities credit the Obama administration’s work to make housing veterans a top priority and more recently the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that boosted the Department of Veteran Affairs’ homeless programs and expanded rental aid. Advocates also point to partnerships between government agencies, nonprofits and corporate foundations.

Last month, the VA gave $1 billion in grants to community nonprofits for the upcoming year to tackle the issue, the most ever, said Jill Albanese, director of clinical operations at the Veterans Health Administration’s Homeless Programs Office.

“This isn’t something that we’re doing on our own: This is really something that we’re doing through partnerships,” Albanese said. “They’re the experts on homelessness in their communities.”

In this photo provided by Gabriella Rico, volunteers from Home Depot work to build a garden and water feature on the campus of the Veterans Empowerment Organization in Atlanta, Nov. 10, 2023. Company employees have volunteered more than 1.5 million hours in service to veterans, including building or repairing 60,000 houses and facilities for former service members. (Gabriella Rico via AP)

Still, the number of veterans living on the streets is significant. There are more than 33,000 homeless veterans, according to the 2022 Point-in-Time count conducted by the VA and Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

And much still needs to be done, said Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, calling it a “moving target” — just as people are moving out of homelessness, others become unhoused every day. Affordable housing is key, she said, though communities nationwide have struggled with that.

Along with housing, the VEO offers classes about financial literacy, securing VA benefits and how to get on a path toward employment and housing independence. There’s also a common area for reading and a gym for working out.

“We are proud to say that we are not a shelter. This is a program center, meaning the veteran has to put some skin in the game,” said Tony Kimbrough, a former military intelligence officer and CEO of the nonprofit, which started in 2008 with a single two-bedroom house. “We’re going to put a ton of it in there, but we expect a little bit of back-and-forth.”

Veterans Empowerment Organization CEO Tony Kimbrough points at design plans for a two-story building that will house 20 formerly homeless veterans, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 in Atlanta. The Atlanta-based nonprofit houses dozens of veterans and helps put them on a path toward employment and housing independence. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

Tilson became homeless in February when he was forced out of the triplex he was renting south of Atlanta.

He spent the next month and a half sleeping in the street or on business doorsteps, relying on friends from his church for food or access to a shower. Church members steered him to local nonprofits and he eventually landed at VEO, where he has been living in emergency housing, has taken a five-week financial literacy course and is focused on improving his credit score.

Tilson, who suffered a stroke last year, said he needs a knee replacement and hernia surgery to address the physical toll carrying his belongings took while he was homeless. A VA case manager is helping him get those, and he’s optimistic that in a few months he’ll get to move into his own place, with the help of VEO and another local nonprofit.

His friends from church are thrilled about the help he’s getting, Tilson said, but “nobody can be happier than me.”

In addition to 10 double-occupancy rooms housing veterans like Tilson in emergency shelter, the VEO campus has 41 apartment units where veterans pay a few hundred dollars in rent. VA funding makes up the difference, allowing the nonprofit to reinject the money and expand. Its next project is 20 single-occupancy bedrooms being built this winter.

VEO says it expansion would not be possible, without more than $2.3 million in corporate donations from The Home Depot Foundation.

The Atlanta-based foundation has helped some 50,000 homeless veterans nationwide through its partnership with nonprofits like VEO. It has donated $500 million to veterans causes since 2011, and on Friday announced a commitment to giving an additional $250 million by 2030.

Company employees have also volunteered more than 1.5 million hours in service to veterans, including building or repairing 60,000 houses and facilities for former service members. On Friday, 20 members of “Team Depot” were finishing a weeklong project to build a garden, complete with a water feature, in honor of Veterans Day.

“When we think about the role that corporate foundations can play, it boils down to three things,” said Jennifer A. Taylor, a political science professor at James Madison University and a military spouse who studies philanthropy and veterans issues. “Are you a funder — giving out grants for others to do the work? Are you a doer — taking employees out into the community? Or are you a convener — bringing thought leaders together? Home Depot is doing all of those things.”

Home Depot CEO Ted Decker said the company’s giving philosophy was always housing-centric but was “pretty disparate” before 2011. That’s when then-CEO Frank Blake, realizing that tens of thousands of employees were veterans or spouses of veterans, decided to focus the company’s philanthropy on veteran housing.

“It fit our culture,” Decker said.

Despite the progress that’s been made, there are still tens of thousands of homeless veterans, including nearly 3,500 in the Los Angeles area.

Navy veteran Malcolm Harvey III spent years living on the streets in Southern California, including Los Angeles’ Skid Row. In 2015, a representative from the nonprofit U.S. Vets helped him get a job with the organization. Speaking gigs on behalf of The Home Depot Foundation followed.

Now, Harvey, 62, is married, owns a condo and works as program director at the Long Beach nonprofit People Assisting The Homeless.

“We can’t become numb to this,” Harvey said of the homelessness problem among former service members.

“We made a promise to them when they took that oath and put on that uniform and decided to defend this country,” he said.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude. But we owe them more than that: We owe them action.”

Associated Press Writer Michael Casey in Boston contributed to this report.

If you are a veteran who is homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness, call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-424-3838 for assistance.


  • Criminal Legal System
  • The Big Picture
  • Throughline
  • Emancipator Search
  • Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Instagram

Dissecting policies and practices, offering solutions informed by scholarship and lived experience.

How Racism Underpins the U.S.’ Homelessness Problem

Neighborhood design and homeownership are entrenched in jim crow-era segregation practices.

Four offset rectangles frame a grey tent in a park next to a lamp post. A bike is leaned against the tent and leaves of green, yellow, orange and red are on the trees in the background.

H omelessness in the U.S. is a public health crisis. In 2022, more than 582,000 Americans became unhoused, a number that has risen every year since 2017.

However, not all Americans are equally likely to experience homelessness. Black Californians are nearly four times more likely than White residents, echoing troubling trends seen across the country .

These findings confirm that Black households are disproportionately vulnerable to displacement that can then turn into homelessness. To understand why, we must look at the impact of structural, institutional and interpersonal racism on housing, the criminal legal system and education.

Housing’s Jim Crow roots

Three offset images: A homeless camp under an elevated highway next to a barbed wire fence. A redlining map of Cleveland, Ohio. A tree-lined street of three-story rowhouses.

American cities embody explicit racist covenants between government policies, banks and the real estate industry.

Discriminatory, race-based residential segregation, or redlining, owes its roots to Jim Crow-era ideologies that purposefully and radically redrew American cities. Over a century ago , Black families were relatively well integrated throughout city neighborhoods until the Great Migration brought labor-seeking Black migrants north, sowing panic and hostility in predominantly White communities. Some reacted through violence, while others promoted the creation of Black enclaves, which resulted in segregation practices that were codified through redlining in the 1930s.

In many metropolitan areas including Chicago, San Francisco and Cleveland, neighborhood segregation today follows that same perimeter: White households are concentrated in wealthy suburbs, while Black households are located in economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Even as some of those dividing lines erode, the result isn’t racial integration but the displacement of Black households out of cities or into homelessness.

Homeownership is simultaneously a means of building wealth for White families and a cause of poverty for generations of Black families. The racial wealth gap is wide and predicted to continue expanding . In 2019, White families held an average of $184,000 in wealth while Black families held $23,000. Most White households own their homes compared with less than half of Black households. Such financial resources help to soften the blows of unexpected life events and can help family members whose changing economic circumstances affect their housing. Absent those resources could result in being left without a home in the face of a financial emergency.

Today, Black households are still steered into segregated Black neighborhoods, offered higher interest rates and subprime mortgages, and denied loans 1.8 times more often than White families. Black renters — particularly Black women renters — are much more likely to be evicted or threatened with eviction . Those court-mandated evictions then appear on tenant screening reports, which landlords can use to justify denying housing.

The prison-to-homelessness pipeline

Three offset images: A Black police officer stands with his hand on a woman with her back turned being escorted to a police car. An archival photo of three stories of prison cells. A man experiencing homelessness photographed from behind, with a floral comforter draped around his body.

One key to anti-Black racism can be conveyed in a single phrase: Same action, different treatment.

Consider the different treatment Black and White people receive from police and the over-policing of Black communities that result in high rates of incarceration. These are not linked to crime rates but to changes in public policy at the federal, state and local levels that promoted more policing, more arrests for minor drug offenses and harsher, longer prison sentences in communities of color.

A well-documented prison-to-homelessness pipeline also disproportionately affects Black Americans. Like eviction, a history of incarceration is a legal reason to deny someone housing and can limit access to public housing . Compounding this injustice, people released from prisons receive very little help finding housing .

The stigma of a criminal record can also be a major barrier to employment , disproportionately impacting Black job applicants. In one landmark study , White job applicants with a criminal record were more likely to be invited to interview than Black job applicants — with or without a criminal record. Incarceration also affects a household’s economic security, with hidden costs that the family must absorb such as court debt and commissary support.

In other words, a criminal record impacts employment opportunities, which impacts the amount of rent someone can afford from what often ends up being lower wages. Without a good job, you can’t afford a good home. And without a home, everything else falls apart.

Starting off on an unequal foundation

how to solve the problem of homelessness

The framework for our modern public education system also follows the logic of Jim Crow , particularly as American schools today resegregate , especially in the American South. Because schools get funding through state and local property taxes, predominantly Black schools situated in underserved communities are chronically underfunded and under-resourced.

Education powerfully determines one’s life course, lifetime earning potential, economic security and quality of housing. The federal minimum wage is $7.50 an hour, or about $15,000 a year, while the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment was $1,769 per month in 2022, doubling and tripling in more expensive metropolitan areas. The arithmetic is obvious: most full-time, minimum wage workers cannot afford rent.

Like the racial wealth gap, the earnings gap is large and persistent. In 2022 , Black full-time workers earned $881 a week on average, compared to $1,101 per week for White workers. Black households are more likely to be rent-burdened (paying more than 30% of their income to rent) and severely rent-burdened (paying more than 50% of their income to rent), leaving Black families more likely than White families to make trade-offs between essential daily needs like housing, utilities and food.

Thousands of White Americans experience hardships that push them into homelessness, too — but not because of the color of their skin. While the ultimate reasons that lead to someone becoming unhoused across race are similar — deep poverty, trauma, limited family wealth in the face of unexpected blows, a critical shortage of affordable housing — the addition of anti-Black racism means that Black families fall into homelessness more often because they don’t have the protections that whiteness brings.

Structural, institutional and interpersonal racism in our housing, criminal justice and education systems mean that Black Americans disproportionately struggle to find consistent housing, are vulnerable to displacement into homelessness and face more barriers when trying to get rehoused.

If we are serious about ending homelessness, we must tackle the racist systems that inform and sustain public structures and inadvertently displace Black families.

Kara Young Ponder, Ph.D., is the director of community engagement and racial justice at the University of California San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project .

New tent cities could pop up in NYC as mayor removes homeless migrants from shelters

how to solve the problem of homelessness

The mayor of the nation's largest city and some of his most vocal critics agree on one thing: More homeless migrants will soon be sleeping on the streets of New York City, in subway cars and in other places unfit for human habitation.

Since last spring, more than 125,000 migrants from other countries have arrived in New York and about half of them are in shelters, according to Mayor Eric Adams. Many were bused from the southern U.S. border by Republican governors and may not have connections in the city, immigrant advocates said. The flood of asylum seekers , along with a housing affordability and homelessness crisis decades in the making, are causing the city's shelter system to push past capacity, city officials and nonprofit staff say.

"I want to be honest with New Yorkers: You're going to see the visual of running out of room," Adams said in October. "It's not if, it's when. People are going to be sleeping on our streets."

Since July, 21,000 vacate notices have been issued to migrants in shelters − including families with children − because there's no more space, according to the mayor's office. Individual migrants get 30-day notices to leave shelters, and migrant families get 60-day notices. As summer turned to fall, and as fall has progressed, implementation of the policy has ramped up.

The new time limits on shelter stays break more than 40 years of a unique right to shelter in the city that policymakers and homeless advocates have long championed because it saves lives, they said.

Among migrants who have already received notices, 8,400 have notices that have expired, meaning their 30 or 60 days are up and they must leave the shelter, return to the migrant intake center and ask for another shelter room, which isn't guaranteed.

That process has already led to confusion and chaos, with some people thinking they would have to exit the shelter system for the streets, housing advocates told USA TODAY. Most people who reached the end of their time limit haven't returned to shelters, according to the mayor's office, and migrants without work authorizations won't be able to afford rent on their own.

New York City's sprawling shelter system meant the city's enormous homeless population was mostly indoors for years, somewhat hidden from the public and given much-needed shelter in dangerous weather conditions.

Now, advocates are warning that could start to change quickly, just as winter descends on the Northeast.

“People will be on the street. For the first time in almost 50 years, we will see children on the street. It is simply not acceptable," said Christine Quinn, CEO of the homeless shelter Win NYC and former speaker of the New York City Council.

New York City is 'too full'

Nonprofit staff and housing lawyers who spoke with USA TODAY said New York City officials have also been offering plane tickets to migrants who want to leave and settle elsewhere in the U.S.

Last month, the Adams administration said social workers are tasked with asking migrants where they want to go and what they want to do in the U.S. so they can try to help them accomplish their goals.

Laura Sumajjan, a mother of three from Colombia, was offered a ticket to Mississippi, she told USA TODAY. But she declined to leave New York City because she doesn't know anyone anywhere else and her kids are enrolled in school there.

Her family has not yet received a 60-day notice to leave their shelter, but she has been learning about the new policy through social media and the news.

She said social workers didn't ask her what she wanted before offering her a chance to relocate again to Mississippi. They've also floated other, less-populated states, she said.

"They said New York is too full," Sumajjan, 28, said in an interview in Spanish. "They haven’t asked me, it’s where they can offer help, not where we want to be."

Sumajjan came to the U.S. a year and a half ago, traversing through three Mexican cities before crossing the border near Mexicali and arriving in New York City via Ohio. She said she did it for her children, whom she wanted to have an American education.

“Everyone deserves opportunities,” she said.

What is New York's right-to-shelter mandate?

For more than four decades, New York City has sheltered tens of thousands of unhoused people in homeless shelters, unlike other major cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In the 1970s, before the legal right to shelter existed, many homeless New Yorkers (most of them men) died on the streets and suffered terrible injuries, according to the Coalition for the Homeless , a legal nonprofit that has advocated for unhoused people in the city for more than 40 years.

In 1979, a lawyer named Robert Hayes, who co-founded the coalition, filed a class action lawsuit against the city and New York state, arguing the legal right to shelter existed because the state Constitution declares "the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state."

By 1981, New York City and the state agreed to provide shelter and board to all homeless men who "met the need standard for welfare," the Coalition for the Homeless says . Over time, the mandate extended to women and families.

New York's homeless have long been 'hidden'

New York City, tied with Los Angeles County, has the largest unhoused population in the U.S., with more than 100,000 lacking permanent housing.

The vast majority of unhoused people in New York live in shelters, so compared with California and other Western states, "the problem is hidden," said Margot Kushel, director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative of the University of California, San Francisco.

In California, more unhoused people live in tent encampments or in out-of-the-way places , along river beds or around floodplains. More people than ever are living in cars and vehicles in the Golden State, but that's not the case in New York City because of its unique lack of parking, Kushel said.

"Whatever unsheltered homelessness there will be will be very visible," Kushel said.

Encampments and people forced to sleep on sidewalks could cause problems for local restaurants and business owners, as has been the case in California, she said.

Last month, Adams said New York City will consider passing out tents to newly arrived migrants so they can live in parks and other outdoor spaces, The Wall Street Journal reported .

When asked to confirm, the mayor's office said "all options are on the table."

“Passing out tents as winter approaches is not only a mockery of the city’s legal and moral obligation to provide safe shelter to people without homes, but it will put lives in danger," the Coalition for the Homeless said in a statement. "People freezing to death on the streets is the exact nightmare that the right to shelter was designed to prevent."

Advocates warn homeless people could die on NYC streets

The Coalition for the Homeless and the city are tied up in legal talks over the shelter stay limits for migrants, in part because the 30- and 60-day limits are so arbitrary, said Will Watts, the coalition's deputy executive director for advocacy.

The mayor's office told USA TODAY they decided on the 30- and 60-day limits because that was the amount of time they felt gave migrants a chance to plan for the next steps in their journey.

"The analogy that came to mind was this is an eviction notice," Watts said. "It just felt like, ‘I’m giving you a 30- or 60-day notice based on your tenancy.’”

International arrivals have been an unfortunate "scapegoat" in the city's homelessness crisis in recent years, and the mayor's decision to limit their shelter stays places the stress of the crisis squarely on their shoulders, said Murad Awawdeh, executive director for the New York Immigration Coalition.

“It’s a huge deal, it’s incredibly disingenuous for this administration to be going after the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our communities. That does not really foster New York values," he said.

Migrants with nowhere else to go face the risk of getting frostbite on their extremities and freezing to death if they have to live on the streets, said Kushel, who is a physician. Unhoused people who live unsheltered are also at risk of getting hit by cars, especially at night, she said.

"We're heading into winter. That's not survivable," Kushel said. "Like, we don't let our houses go down to 40 at night, because it would be dangerous."

Unhoused people living outside are also at greater risk for violence and sexual assault, experts say. This year, researchers in Los Angeles found most unhoused women said feeling unsafe was their top concern while they lived on the streets.

"The data collected show that high rates of victimization and experiences of trauma are both a cause of homelessness and a common feature of women’s experiences of homelessness," says the report from the Urban Institute.

It's more costly to solve unsheltered homelessness, critics warn

Cities across the western U.S. have been struggling in recent years to solve their own homelessness crises , with many seeking to get unhoused people into shelter in temporary hotel programs or sanctioned encampments .

The cost of trying to solve unsheltered homelessness in New York City would be monumental, City Comptroller Brad Lander told USA TODAY, and the mayor's decision to limit shelter stays for migrants is a shortsighted fiscal solution that will cost more in the long term, he said.

"It's penny-wise and pound-foolish," Lander said. "The costs of unsheltered homelessness ultimately show up in hospitals because sleeping on the street is terrible for your health. They show up in the corrections system because we have a program of homeless sweeps."

Like in other cities, the relatively small number of unhoused people who live outdoors in New York face routine homeless sweeps by officials, in which people are moved from encampments to housing, shelter and sometimes jail.

In July, an audit by Lander's office found the city's homeless sweeps "completely failed" to help unhoused people. Among more than 2,300 unhoused people who were swept from New York streets in 2022, only three people secured permanent housing.

Sumajjan, from Colombia, said she tries to earn money from odd jobs, but all her cash ends up going to food, so she can't save money for an apartment.

Meanwhile, she's waiting to possibly get a notice telling her the family has 60 days before they must leave their shelter in Queens.

If and when that notice comes, Sumajjan said, "I am going to present myself again, because I have nowhere else to go."

Contributing: Melissa Montoya

Augusta-Aiken WRDW-TV

Augusta-Aiken WRDW-TV

Why solving veteran homelessness is a priority in Augusta

Posted: November 14, 2023 | Last updated: November 14, 2023

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The problem of veteran homelessness remains profound despite improvements in recent years.

That’s why the Department of Veterans Affairs reached out with the Homeless Veteran Stand Down, not only meant to get veterans daily needed items like toiletries but also to put them on a path off the streets.

VA is on track to permanently house 38,000 homeless veterans this year, having reached 26,470 through July.

And in Augusta – where 11% of residents are members of the military community – the agency has housed more than 140 veterans in 2023, with none of them returning to unhoused living conditions.

Nationally, the trend is positive.

MORE | Nonprofits battle veteran homelessness, but hurdles linger

Since January 2020, the number of homeless veterans has fallen 11% and has gone down 55% over the past 13 years, according to a government count. That’s in sharp contrast with the general homeless population.

But it’s still a serious problem.

Local permanent housing placements include apartments or houses veterans can rent or own, often with a subsidy to help make the housing affordable. VA Augusta also helped some veterans end their homelessness by reuniting them with family and friends.

All these efforts are built on the “housing first” approach, which prioritizes getting a veteran into housing, and then provides the veteran with the wraparound support they need to stay housed, including health care, job training, and legal and education assistance.

Looking ahead, two buildings at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Medical Center are about to undergo a big transformation . Right now, plans are to turn the unused wings into 76 units for housing.

How to get help

  • Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless can contact VA Augusta’s homeless services care coordinator to get help: [email protected] .

Veteran Stand Down is a resource fair for veterans connecting those who served our country with the tools to get their lives back on track.

“People think that when you go into the military, and you’ve served your country that you come back okay,” said Annette Lawson, a veteran.

Lawson left to serve as a marine at the age of 17.

“You don’t come back the same person,” she said.

Like many veterans, she faced a different sort of battle on the front lines when she came home.

“Homelessness? I never saw that one coming, but it did,” said Lawson.

She says one visit to the Veterans Stand Down resource fair radically changed her life.

“The women’s house that they had here in Augusta Parkway Place, was another very good resource because they helped me establish housing. And you had your mandate to say you couldn’t stay in this house unless you were saving money. So once you got a job, there was a certain amount of your income that you had to put away and they monitored on a monthly basis,” she said.

Every year, the Veterans Stand Down program provides at-risk and homeless veterans with mental health services, connections to housing programs, health care, and more.

Sabrina Faircloth is the program manager for the homeless program.

“We have a lot of veterans that are aging and disabled, they’re on fixed incomes. And it’s really difficult for them to make that money stretch each month, especially with the housing, the rent prices going up. And so today is the day that we’re able to give back to them,” she said.

They’re even giving free haircuts and a hot meal.

“Do you know the difference it makes in your appearance? Just for somebody to care enough to give you a haircut,” said Faircloth.

Faircloth says it’s not a one-stop shop. It serves as a point of connection to identify veterans who need help.

“We stay with them. We provide case management services. We teach them life skills, how to be a good tenant, and how to problem-solve. We link them with employment and link them back to the VA. Changing one life at a time,” she said.

Lawson said: “I have a good job. Have a consistent home. And I get to be talking to you to say thank you United States of America for your tax dollars because you made me better today.”

Homeless veteran

More for You

I was a bartender for almost a decade. Here are the techniques I used to land bigger tips — and the people I tried to avoid serving.

I was a bartender for almost a decade. Here are the techniques I used to land bigger tips — and the people I tried to avoid serving.

(credit: Getty Images)

Another eye drop recall pulls 27 products from store shelves

Chip Roy Lashes Out at MAGA Republicans

Chip Roy Melts Down On House Floor In Rage Against Fellow Republicans

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, speaks during a joint press conference with his Lebanese counterpart Abdallah Bouhabib, in Beirut Lebanon, Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. Amirabdollahian blasted the United States for calling for restraint in the region while at the same time allowing Israel to

Iranian official who reportedly helped Hamas plan Israel attack is seen shaking hands with UN aid leader

Stimulus checks

Stimulus Checks: How much money is the IRS sending at the end of this month?

Deshaun Watson's NFL season is over, what's next for the Cleveland Browns?

Deshaun Watson's NFL season is over, what's next for the Cleveland Browns?

Appetizer Tortilla Pinwheels

38 Make-Ahead Appetizer Recipes to Always Have on Hand

Putin's war with Ukraine has basically killed off one of Russia's most successful tech companies

Putin's war with Ukraine has basically killed off one of Russia's most successful tech companies

Trump's Demands for Extreme Loyalty Are Starting to Backfire

Trump's Demands for Extreme Loyalty Are Starting to Backfire

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iran tells Hamas it will not enter the war with Israel

Archaeologists Uncover Biblical Truth

Archaeologists Uncover Biblical Truth in Town Captured by Pharoah

FILE - Christine Geiger cuts a customer's hair at her salon, July 12, 2023, in Traverse City, Mich. The hair salon is facing a discrimination charge from the state's Department of Civil Rights after Geiger posted on social media earlier this year that anyone identifying as other than a man or a woman is not welcome at her business. (AP Photos/John Flesher, file)

Discrimination charge filed against Michigan salon after owner's comments on gender identity

The FDA Approved A New Medication To Prevent A Common Hospital Infection

The FDA Approved A New Medication To Prevent A Common Hospital Infection

I went to 3 Burger Kings in New York City and saw firsthand why the fast-food giant is closing hundreds of restaurants

I went to 3 Burger Kings in New York City and saw firsthand why the fast-food giant is closing hundreds of restaurants

Left: Black and white photo of Will Castle with a moustache, wearing a black t-shirt that reads 'Movember Ambassador'. Right: Will as a child with his father.

I learned my dad took his own life from a radio traffic update

Georgia prosecutor asks court to put Trump co-defendant back in jail

Georgia prosecutor asks court to put Trump co-defendant back in jail

lake powell September 23, 2022

Before and After Satellite Images Show Lake Powell Water Levels Rise

Elon Musk Calls Antisemitic Post on X the ‘Actual Truth’

Elon Musk Calls Antisemitic Post on X the ‘Actual Truth’

Unexpected uses for your Swiffer

9 Surprising Ways You Can Use a Swiffer

I'm a boomer who moved to Texas and was able to retire early. Almost everything is cheaper here, but the bugs and snakes are wild.

I'm a boomer who moved to Texas and was able to retire early. Almost everything is cheaper here, but the bugs and snakes are wild.


  1. How to Solve Homelessness: Ethical and Policy Perspectives

    how to solve the problem of homelessness

  2. how to solve the problem of homelessness

    how to solve the problem of homelessness

  3. 15 Best Solve Homeless Problem images

    how to solve the problem of homelessness

  4. Help the Homeless

    how to solve the problem of homelessness

  5. how to solve the problem of homelessness

    how to solve the problem of homelessness

  6. how to solve the problem of homelessness

    how to solve the problem of homelessness


  1. We can solve the homeless crisis. Here's how

    (LOS ANGELES) (JULY 2, 2021) Dr. Michele Nealon, president of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, says the only way we can solve the nation's homeless crisis is through a highly concentrated and coordinated effort involving public and private sectors.

  2. How to Fix America's Homelessness Crisis, According to a Researcher

    It's cheaper to house homeless people than it is to put them through the endless piecemeal cycle of homeless shelters and triage services that cost taxpayers somewhere between $30,000 and...

  3. New solutions to the global homelessness problem

    New approaches might offer a solution to solving the problem. It's estimated around 150 million people worldwide are homeless - around 2% of the global population. But the actual number could be much higher, because there are many states of homelessness - and many causes, too. Have you read?

  4. How To Help End Homelessness: 7 Services And Resources

    Permanent Supportive Housing Permanent supportive housing programs are designed as a solution with longevity to ending homelessness in the community.

  5. Solutions

    The solution to homelessness is simple - housing. Rapid re-housing is an intervention designed to quickly connect people to housing and services. Rapid Re-housing Assistance for the Most Vulnerable Sometimes people need longer-term rental assistance and services supports to achieve stability.

  6. Why the U.S. can't solve the homelessness crisis

    Can the U.S. solve homelessness? Key Points Over half a million Americans were unhoused in 2020. Despite the rising budget, overall homelessness in the U.S. has improved by only 10% compared...

  7. Homelessness and Public Health: A Focus on Strategies and Solutions

    The health problems facing homeless persons result from various factors, including a lack of housing, racism and discrimination, barriers to health care, a lack of access to adequate food and protection, limited resources for social services, and an inadequate public health infrastructure.

  8. We Could Solve Homelessness if We Wanted

    Low wages. State disinvestment in psychiatric care, in caring for people with disabilities, in services for veterans. Ronald Reagan, infamously, said homelessness is a choice. There are at least...

  9. How Communities are Building Systems to Reduce and End Homelessness

    Communities had increased housing placement rates for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness by over 200%, connecting more than 105,000 Americans to a home in under four years. But there was a problem: none of those communities ended homelessness for a population. Instead of helping communities count up to a certain number of housing ...

  10. Preventing homelessness is a key focus of new Biden plan : NPR

    Most individuals were out on the streets rather than in shelters — a shift that's raised awareness of the crisis but has also led to more communities cracking down on encampments and criminalizing...

  11. Why Homelessness Still Exists and How We Can End It

    We must come together to find common ground around the shared goal of ending homelessness once and for all. We have a long road ahead. Remember to take care of yourselves and take care of each other. Find joy in the daily victories. Stay focused, stay strong, and stay engaged until homelessness is a relic of the past, a faded memory.

  12. Two cities tried to fix homelessness, only one succeeded

    Howard Center for Investigative Journalism HOUSTON — Nearly a decade ago, two U.S. cities with large homeless populations tried to solve their problem by adopting a strategy that prioritized giving people housing and help over temporary shelter.

  13. Homelessness in America: An Overview

    Although homelessness decreased 10 percent nationwide from 2009 to 2019, 1 it is a growing problem in some neighborhoods of such U.S. cities as San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, where the ...

  14. The Obvious Answer to Homelessness

    A study led by an economist at Zillow shows that when a growing number of people are forced to spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent, homelessness spikes. Academics who study ...

  15. How 100 Communities Are Solving Homelessness—And What We Can ...

    Solving homelessness means learning how to solve it every day. And as the issues shift over time—say there's a fire at a large apartment building or a natural disaster like a flood ...

  16. Preventing and Ending Youth Homelessness in America

    Not all young people have the benefit of growing up in a safe and stable home. In fact: Across America, 1 in 30 youth between the ages of 13 to 24 and 1 in 10 young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 will experience homelessness over the course of a year. This scenario — which occurs during an important developmental period — can inject ...

  17. How to Address Homelessness: Reflections from Research

    If homelessness is at root a housing affordability problem, then providing more affordable housing would seem to be the most direct way to address it. Policy responses, however, have tended historically to focus on homelessness as a function of individual (micro) social and behavioral challenges (such as mental illness or substance use), or ...

  18. Proven Solutions

    In 1979, the founders of Coalition for the Homeless brought a class-action lawsuit, Callahan v. Carey, against the City and State of New York. The case, which was brought on behalf of homeless men, argued that a constitutional right to shelter existed in New York. The lawsuit pointed in particular to Article XVII of the New York State ...

  19. Ending Homelessness: Addressing Local Challenges in Housing the Most

    The housing-related relief measures are temporary; thus, further policies and investments will be needed to solve the longer-term problems of housing instability and homelessness. ... We know how to solve homelessness: by providing opportunities for all families and individuals to live in safe and affordable housing that they choose and that ...

  20. How Shifting Perspectives Can Solve Homelessness in America

    Someone who's wearing the same pair of socks - you're on your feet all day, there's inclement weather, you're wearing it day and night - you can get tremendous foot sores. It gets wet with ...

  21. 4 reasons why homelessness keeps going up : NPR

    But again, the overriding problem, they say, is the dire lack of places low-income people can afford to live. "There's really no way to solve homelessness without seriously addressing this," says ...

  22. "Rough Sleepers"— The Growing Problem Of Homelessness In America

    Homelessness is a wide-spread and growing problem even among those who are employed. Tracy Kidder gives us an intimate look at the problem through the eyes of Boston's Dr. Jim O'Connell.

  23. Need to solve an intractable problem? Collaboration is hard but worth

    Complex problems facing cities like homelessness and climate change can only be solved by multiple organizations collaborating across boundaries, say Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Jorrit de Jong and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. Featuring Jorrit de Jong and Amy Edmondson. November 9, 2023. 42 minutes and 21 seconds.

  24. Homelessness

    homelessness, the state of having no home or permanent place of residence. Few social problems are as visible as the plight of homeless people. Once almost invisible and easily ignored, homeless people are now a common sight in cities, suburbs, and even some rural areas. There are men who roam the streets carrying what is left of their ...

  25. Nonprofits progress in tackling veterans homelessness, but challenges

    It's part of a years-long effort by government agencies and nonprofits around the country to address homelessness among veterans. Since January 2020, the numbers of homeless veterans have fallen 11% and have gone down 55% over the past 13 years, according to a government count. That's in sharp contrast with the general homeless population.

  26. How Racism Underpins the U.S.' Homelessness Problem

    Homeownership is simultaneously a means of building wealth for White families and a cause of poverty for generations of Black families. The racial wealth gap is wide and predicted to continue ...

  27. Migrants in New York City will soon be forced from shelters to streets

    The cost of trying to solve unsheltered homelessness in New York City would be monumental, City Comptroller Brad Lander told USA TODAY, and the mayor's decision to limit shelter stays for migrants ...

  28. Why solving veteran homelessness is a priority in Augusta

    VA is on track to permanently house 38,000 homeless veterans this year, having reached 26,470 through July. And in Augusta - where 11% of residents are members of the military community - the ...