Homelessness Research: What We Know and What We Need to Know

written by Sam Batko
July 15, 2014

In preparation for writing about the Alliance’s recently released Research Agenda for Ending Homelessness today, I thought about the data and research we have on homelessness available to us today in comparison to the data and research that was available only a decade ago, much of which is still some of the most influential research to date.

I was reminded of the well-worn cliché, “In my day, we wore newspapers on our feet and walked up hill both directions to school.” And it occurred to me that that cliché could easily serve as an accurate metaphor for what research in homelessness field looked like not even 15 years ago.

In 1999, Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve was released. This groundbreaking report was based on the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, the first national study conducted on homelessness since a study by Urban Institute in 1987.

Contrast that with the state of homeless research today, when each year the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) releases the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress in two volumes, with one volume covering national trends and Point-in-Time Counts for every Continuum of Care (CoC), and the other volume providing detailed demographic data on the sheltered population.

Additionally, CoCs across the country currently maintain intricate Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) that allow them to evaluate program outcomes and track the movement of homeless individuals and families through local homeless assistance systems.

Today, we also have readily available national evaluations of federal programs including HPRP and SSVF. And the Family Options Study, probably the most comprehensive random assignment study ever done on homelessness, is underway.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way. Yet unanswered questions still remain.

This month, the Homelessness Research Institute (HRI) at the Alliance released "A Research Agenda for Ending Homelessness." It is intended to inform funders, both public and private, about the most pressing unanswered research questions that would, if answered, improve policy and practice in ending homelessness. We developed it in partnership with the Alliance’s Research Council, which is made up of leading academic and policy researchers.

The research agenda is not an exhaustive list of all unanswered research questions on homelessness but, rather, a list of the most pressing questions. We have grouped the questions into three focus areas:

  1. The Scope and Demographics of Homelessness: Homelessness is an ever evolving issue, research questions in this section focus primarily on determining details of specific subpopulations, especially those that are newly emerging or growing.
  2. The Efficacy of Interventions: It is crucial that we determine the relative effectiveness of available interventions for ending homelessness in order to make resource allocation decisions. The research questions in this section primarily focus on the evaluation and comparison of currently utilized program models and designs.
  3. System Planning and Infrastructure: As communities across the country embark on system-level planning required by current federal policy, questions as to the most effective methods for creating and implementing this infrastructure will surely arise.

As we move forward, answering these questions and the others in the research agenda will help move the field even closer to ending homelessness.