What Cities Can Do to Combat Homelessness
by Steven Brown
The most recent* Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress points out the number of people experiencing homelessness has fallen every year since 2010, representing a 13.7 percent drop between 2010 and 2016. Homelessness fell even more dramatically among certain subpopulations over the same period. Chronic homelessness fell 27 percent, veterans homelessness was cut by nearly half and was eliminated in dozens of places across the country, and homelessness among families with children decreased 23 percent.
Though the number of people experiencing homelessness has declined nationally, many large cities have experienced increases in their homeless populations. Since 2010, homelessness increased slightly more than 1 percent. In many of these cities, the number of people in shelters has decreased while the number of people on the street has gone up dramatically. In Los Angeles, the number of people experiencing homelessness went up more than 33 percent in the past two years and increased more than 42 percent for people outside of shelter. In New York City, homelessness spiked 39 percent in the past year. Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and several other large cities saw similar increases.
Despite the trends, many cities—including Atlanta, Cleveland, and New Orleans—experienced significant declines in homelessness. What are these cities doing well? Houston is a prime example. After a peak in homelessness in 2011, Houston adopted a Housing First model for addressing homelessness. Officials and homelessness providers in the areas developed the Houston/Harris County Continuum of Care in 2012 and worked with local agencies to create The Way Home, an action plan with goals to address area homelessness. The goals of The Way Home are to
- create a system to identify the chronically homeless and match them to appropriate affordable housing,
- coordinate a service system to support long-term housing stability, and
- create enough permanent housing to meet the demand.
Before The Way Home, area service providers and nonprofits were an uncoordinated “tangle of services,” but the city worked to coordinate local efforts, including adopting the Homeless Management Information System to match people to appropriate, stable housing within 30 days of system entry and assessment. The city redirected over $100 million in federal, state, and local funding, with help from local businesses, to build and maintain over 2,500 additional permanent supportive housing units with wraparound services. Since the introduction of The Way Home, homelessness in Houston, Harris, and Fort Bend counties has fallen 60 percent, and their Continuum of Care was recently recognized as one of 50 in the country that has effectively ended veterans homelessness.
The gains Houston has made toward ending homelessness through a Housing First approach and coordinated entry are laudable and impressive. Other cities have tried or are trying similar approaches, yet still struggle with a steady or growing homeless population.
One additional reason the gains may have been more effective in Houston is their more accessible housing market. According to US Department of Housing and Urban Development data, the fair market rent for a one-bedroom rental in Harris County stayed flat between 2011 ($767 a month) and 2016 ($773), and the most recent Census Bureau data for the county show an 8.9 percent vacancy in rental housing. Atlanta, Cleveland, and New Orleans have also used a Housing First approach and seen their homeless populations fall, and so have other cities with comparably lower rents and slower rental growth.
Compare this with Seattle and King County, which saw a 25 percent increase in fair market rent for one-bedroom rentals (2011: $977, 2016: $1,225) and has a rental vacancy rate of 3.4 percent. Decreasing housing affordability in an area can make it more difficult for people on the margins to stay in their homes and can prevent people in shelters or permanent supportive housing from jumping into private market housing.
But cities, including many coastal ones, with rising rents and rising populations experiencing homelessness can still fight the rising tide. Boston has experienced recent spikes in homelessness, but is in a state that has a right-to-shelter law. Even though the number of people and the length of stay in emergency shelters is increasing, the number of people “on the street” is among the lowest in the country, and the area is seeing declines in people returning to shelter. Though emergency shelter can have challenges (e.g., turnover, privacy, safety), shelters have the advantage of staff who can help coordinate services and transitions to more stable housing. Boston’s challenge, and the challenge of other cities in a similar position, is to build a better bridge between shelter and self-supported housing.
While homelessness is down in much of the country, many cities still struggle. Cities that have brought down their populations have done so through a Housing First approach, a tight coordination between public, nonprofit, and private stakeholders, and a clear path for permanent and stable housing. Houston’s Housing First, integrated Homeless Management Information System model, and close coordination between agencies have led to an end of veterans homelessness and a nearly 50 percent reduction in homelessness overall. Although rents haven’t risen there as quickly, the approach shows that getting people into permanent supportive housing may be the best solution. The Family Options Study showed that of transitional housing, rapid re-housing, and vouchers, vouchers proved the best option for helping homeless families achieve residential stability, and other studies have shown that rapid re-housing can work in certain contexts.
The best way for cities to help their homeless populations is to house them and support them with services to help them find stable employment, health care, and child care services. Though this may be challenging for cities with limited affordable units and rising rents, these are the steps that must be taken to support these most vulnerable of populations.
*Editor's Note: In December 2017, HUD released an updated Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, showing that overall homelessness rose 0.7 percent between 2016 and 2017. Some geographic areas continued to see decreases, while homelessness in Los Angeles rose another 26 percent since 2016. For those seeking the most recent data (rather than the most recent available when this article was originally published), please see that report.