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House the Homeless

Homelessness is a national problem in the United States. Every night in 2016 around 550,000 people suffered from homelessness, over 20 percent of them children. The main reason for homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, exacerbated by individual challenges such as substance abuse, disability, or mental and physical health. The costs of homelessness to society are very high, and include medical treatment and hospitalization, police intervention and incarceration, and emergency shelter expenses. These costs put a heavy burden on cities and local governments.


As with many societal ills, preventing homelessness is often the least expensive solution. An adequate supply of affordable housing is a necessary condition, but by itself hardly sufficient. Communities also offer programs that connect vulnerable populations with emergency services, cash assistance, and case management. These should be integrated into a prevention plan and supplemented where necessary.


Since prevention is not always possible, local governments should provide emergency shelters for homeless people. Entry into a shelter should be considered as a step on the path to permanent housing. Shelters should offer a range of services such as substance abuse and mental-health counseling, education and job-training assistance, as well as criminal justice re-entry services.


To promote permanent housing, cities should adopt a “housing-first strategy” that removes barriers to housing and provides access to services on site or via other mechanisms. Housing-first models should focus on helping clients be good tenants and providing other services. Outreach to homeless populations is a key tool for all homeless services and should be invested in. Homeless individuals and those recently rehoused will continue to need support for at least a little while. A successful exit from homelessness is more likely if individual and families are connected to these resources. 

The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, November 1st, 2016. Read more.

Housing First Checklist: Assessing Projects and Systems for a Housing First Orientation, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness , September 1st, 2016. Read more.

VA Programs for Homeless Veterans, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, March 1st, 2016. Read more.

The State of Homelessness in America 2016, The National Alliance to End Homelessness, January 1st, 2016. Read more.

Homelessness Prevention: Key Principles and Best Practices, HomeBase, December 4th, 2014. Read more.

What Works and For Whom? A Framework for Promising Practices, The Homeless Hub, January 1st, 2013. Read more.

Measuring Quality of Services and Provision in Homelessness, Judith Wolf and Bill Edgar, European Journal of Homelessness, December 1st, 2007. Read more.

San Francisco’s Initiatives to End Homeless, Trent Rhorer, June 1st, 2006. Read more.

San Francisco’s Strategy to End Chronic Homelessness, Trent Rhorer, June 1st, 2006. Read more.

Presentation: National Alliance to End Homelessness, Nan Roman, June 1st, 2006. Read more.

Jurisdictional Leadership in Ending Chronic Homelessness, US Interagency Council on Homelessness, January 1st, 2006. Read more.

Best Practices of Emergency Shelters, Cynthia Nagendra and Kay Moshier McDivitt , National Alliance to End Homelessness. Read more.

Prevention Targeting 101, National Alliance to End Homelessness. Read more.

Homelessness in America, National Coalition for the Homeless. Read more.

San Francisco, CA, established in 1998 the “Direct Access to Housing” (DAH) program, which provides permanent supportive housing for adults with mental illness, substance abuse, or chronic medical conditions. DAH currently houses over 1,700 formerly homeless people across 36 sites, providing “on-site provision of wrap-around support services”. DAH’s improved health outcomes for these individuals include an 80% reduction in mortality for those with AIDS, glucose control for diabetics, and adherence to a medication regime for those with mental illness. The program also significantly reduced health care costs.


The Housing Commission of San Diego, CA, announced on November 2014, its Housing First initiative - a three-year homelessness action plan to create additional affordable housing with supportive services. The plan includes an investment of up to $15 million in federal funds to create affordable rental housing, and as up to $30 million in the creation of permanent supportive housing and conversion of transitional housing. San Diego also operates emergency winter shelters, which provide housing and job counseling, mental-health screening, and drug and alcohol treatment. The shelters opened in 2012 with the help of a $250,000 donation from UnitedHealthcare.


In 2003, Chicago, IL, launched its first 10-years plan to end homelessness, which outlined three core strategies: prevention, rapid rehousing, and wrap-around services. In 2013, the city launched Chicago’s Plan 2.0, a 7-years plan which set seven strategic priorities: crisis response system, access to stable and affordable housing, youth homelessness, employment, advocacy and civic engagement, cross-systems integration and capacity building. On September 2016, the city announced a 13% decrease in homelessness since September 2015, reaching a ten-year low.


In 2008 Baltimore, MD, launched The Journey Home, a 10-year plan which set four broad goals: increasing the supply of affordable housing: increasing access to comprehensive and affordable health care; ensuring that people have sufficient incomes and employment opportunities; and building the capacity of emergency and preventive services. Between 2011 and 2015, Baltimore increased the number of permanent supportive housing opportunities for people experiencing homelessness by 68%.


Quincy, MA, has doubled the availability of permanent supportive housing since 2004, successfully reducing the population of chronically homeless individuals by 50% by 2012.


In 2011, Tacoma, WA, launched the McCarver Elementary School Special Housing Program in partnership with with elementary schools, to identify homeless families and prioritizes services to them. The program includes rental assistance and case management, in exchange for the family’s commitments keep their children enrolled in school and fully engage in their children’s education both at school and at home. A survey among teachers agree that the parents in the Program have improved in being actively engaged in their children’s education in a variety of ways. Following the success of the program, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill designed to help spread similar educational support throughout the state. The bill created a competitive grant program that will supplement $950,000 in federal funds for helping students experiencing homelessness.


In Denver, CO, the Road Home program has been helping individuals and families experiencing homelessness since 2005. By 2009, more than 1,900 units of affordable housing have been developed, and the number of chronically homeless in the city and county of Denver dropped by 74%. Key elements in Denver’s success included strong leadership in the form of a large stakeholder council, a strong organizational infrastructure of service providers, and the use of public funds to leverage private contributions.


Hennepin County, MN, operates the Rapid Exit Program, which facilitates rapid re-housing by relying on early identification and resolution. The program focuses on the "housing barriers” of the family or individual, and provides within one week assessments and referrals for assistance. This approach puts "housing" at the center of efforts to help people experiencing homelessness, prioritizing the rapid return to permanent housing.


In 2009, Boston, MA, announced its Leading the Way III housing strategy, the third comprehensive campaign implementing a “housing-first” strategy. During 2004-2015 these campaigns have successfully reduced the number chronically homeless individuals in the city by more than a third. According to the “Friends of Boston’s Homeless”, the program save the city $13,000 per person each year in health care and public safety expenditures. Boston also requires rental-housing developments with 10 or more units to set aside 10% of their units for homeless families or individuals.


The city of Philadelphia, PA, partners with Project H.O.M.E, a non-profit organization which operates the Outreach Coordination Center (OCC) overseeing all outreach to people living on the streets of the city. OCC coordinates resources from various city departments into a one-stop shop for housing needs. Outreach teams work almost around the clock, building long-term, trusting relationships with people experiencing homelessness and lead them toward seeking help.


The Housing Authority of Asheville, NC, established in 2007 a local preference in their Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs for homeless individuals. Due to low participation initially, Asheville expanded the program in 2010 through collaboration with local homeless services providers. In the two years since the collaboration started, the city has housed 108 chronically homeless individuals with a 90% success rate.


The Board of Social Services in Mercer County, NJ, partnered with the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness to administrate a rapid-rehousing program. The program is a “one-stop-shop” for homeless families, assessing housing and employment barriers, aiding families in finding appropriate housing, and providing wrap-around services for rapidly rehoused families. In February 2009, Mercer County was chosen to participate in the Federal Rapid Re-housing Demonstration for Families program, providing Temporary Rental Assistance grants for needy families. Out of 107 families participating in the program in 2009-2012, more than half remained in permanent housing even after the rent assistance ended, and a third remained in permanent housing while receiving the aid.   


In 2005, New York City, NY, signed with the state the NY/NY III agreement, committing to create 9,000 units of supportive housing for homeless people. A study conducted by NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene between 2007 and 2009 found that the city saved an annual net average of $10,100 per person placed in supportive housing


Mariah Young-Jones
Read more about responding to homelessness in your city in our report Cities at Work: Progressive Local Policies to Rebuild the Middle Class.