The New Approach: The Emergence of a Better Way to Address Homelessness


Federal Policy Brief | December 3, 2013

Files: The New Approach: The Emergence of a Better Way to Address Homelessness (PDF | 496 KB | 3 pages)

Updated November 21, 2015


The problem of mass homelessness, even with a strong job market, was new to America in the 1980s. As the economy recovered from the severe recession of 1982, a burgeoning homelessness problem did not recover with it. Programs emerged in response, billions of dollars were spent, millions of people received help, and yet the number of homeless people continued to increase.

Reviews for the New Approach

The Weekly Standard – “Experts call this the ‘housing first’ strategy. It works. The most recent data show that the number of chronically homeless declined by 30 percent between 2005 and 2007.” [Update: chronic homelessness has now declined 52 percent since 2005.] Conservative Successes: Some Domestic Policy Achievements to Be Proud Of, January 5, 2009.

The Economist – “Collaborative efforts at the state and local level, along with partnerships with private and non-profit groups, have reduced homelessness in places like Chicago by as much as 12 percent. [Update: several communities have since documented reductions of 30-50 percent.]” Getting Strategic: A National Plan to End a National Disgrace, June 24, 2010; and see: Homelessness Has Fallen. But Will It Stay Low? December 7, 2013. – “[From 2007 to 2012], the U.S. has reduced homelessness by 5.7 percent even as the poverty rate grew by 20 percent. [Update: 9.2 percent from 2007 to 2013.] The decline shows that the country has learned something about how to address homelessness. The solution, it seems, lies not in publicly sheltering the homeless for sustained periods but in ensuring that they quickly secure their own places to live.” Proven Reforms Help Beat Homelessness Even in Tough Times, January 1, 2013.

In the mid-1990s, a new approach began to emerge. The approach, becoming more widespread since 2000, was marked above all else by its goal: where efforts of the previous 20 years were marked by individual programs working to manage the problem of homelessness, the new approach sought to solve the problem, to dramatically reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness.

As this approach spread, the number of people in shelters and in “places not intended for human habitation” began to decline, particularly for those with severe disabilities who had been homeless the longest. Some communities stood out as real leaders, achieving remarkable results and showing the way for others. Federal legislation, particularly the bipartisan HEARTH Act of 2009, overhauled and streamlined the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) homelessness programs with a solid focus on results.

The Solution to Homelessness

From careful research, the experience of leading communities, and a growing pool of national data, the key elements of a better approach have become apparent. These are strategies that work: they reduce homelessness efficiently and at a reasonable cost, substantially improving the lives of no-longer-homeless people and the quality of the communities where they live. Perhaps most surprisingly, they often bring net savings to taxpayers, because the interventions are less expensive than the cycle of emergency “services” that can be the daily existence of homeless people – going from emergency rooms to jails to shelters. The most important elements are:

A Strategic, Systemic, Locally-Led Response – When the Bush Administration revitalized the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2002, USICH reached out and found a strong desire at the community level to change the approach to homelessness and develop solutions. The response from business leaders, mayors, and others made it clear that while partnership from the federal government was essential, ending homelessness would work because it was a local priority.

But local leaders saw that solving the problem would require a more businesslike plan. The new approach involves a systemic strategy, with people working in a coordinated manner – a big step from the previous practice of serving people haphazardly through a collection of disconnected programs. A systemic approach includes:

  • Commitment from everyone. These efforts have captured the imagination of business leaders, faith communities, and opinion leaders of all kinds. Republicans and Democrats have taken leadership. A solution requires programs for homeless people; but it also requires participation by law enforcement, rental property owners, larger poverty programs, and employers.
  • System-level planning and management. Like any successful endeavor, an effective system needs planning. It requires individuals whose job it is to manage the overall system and resolve questions like who should deliver what services, how success will be measured, how resources can be utilized most effectively, who should receive what kinds of assistance, and more.
  • Agreement on goals, and data-driven accountability for results. In an effective system, the parts of the system function together to achieve common goals. Everyone in the system is accountable for their part in meeting these goals. A common data collection system measures progress and allows fine-tuning.

Housing First – Communities with the best results have an intense focus on housing people as quickly as possible. Older approaches, that tried to fix homeless people’s problems while keeping them homeless, have proven to be less effective – improving job skills, recovering from an addiction, or stabilizing a mental illness while living on the streets or moving in and out of shelter is not tenable in most cases. 

The Housing First approach, helping a homeless person move into housing then providing other help once the person is housed, has proven to get better results at less cost. Doubts about whether homeless people are “ready for housing” turned out to be unfounded, when the right package of follow-up services is available – and in a surprising number of instances, that package is neither extensive nor expensive. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations embraced Housing First.

Providing Just Enough Assistance  Communities that are solving homelessness are efficient, re-housing as many people as possible with available funding. Key to achieving efficiency is providing “just enough” to each homeless person so that he or she can become housed and stay housed. “Just enough,” for some homeless people, may be quite a lot, even while saving taxpayers money – see below under “permanent supportive housing.” But others need very little – after short-term help to get in to housing, they will be able to face the rest of their problems themselves. Discipline about providing only what is truly needed is key to having the greatest possible impact on homelessness.

Cost-effective programs that provide “just enough” for homeless people in different circumstances include two particularly important models:

  • Rapid re-housing. For a substantial majority of people experiencing homelessness, their homelessness can be quickly ended using an inexpensive, short-term intervention known as rapid re-housing. Rapid re-housing programs work with landlords to encourage them to rent to homeless people; provide short-term rent subsidy, often the security deposit and the first two months’ rent; and follow up with supports, primarily improving access to employment so that the person will be able to pay the rent once the short-term subsidy expires. Around the country, experience and data show that these programs succeed in quickly housing homeless people; and that the substantial majority stay housed and do not return to homelessness.
  • Permanent supportive housing. At the other extreme, some homeless people have severe disabilities, including mental illness, unchecked addiction, and traumatic brain injury. These individuals often remain homeless for long periods of time. Since inclusion in the Bush Administration’s initial budgets, permanent supportive housing has been widely recognized as a cost-effective intervention for this group. It consists of rent subsidies, medical care, and support services. Even though relatively expensive, when properly targeted it pays for itself – people who would otherwise go to costly psychiatric emergency rooms, jails, and homeless shelters remain in their housing instead. Permanent supportive housing frees vulnerable people from the nightmare existence to which they had previously been consigned, while relieving their communities of the ill effects of widespread street homelessness.


The new approach to homelessness, adopted in many communities and backed by Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the past two Administrations, has already shown remarkable results. In the four years after annual Point-in-Time counts of homeless people began in early 2005, the number of Americans homeless on a given night dropped from 763,000 people to 643,000, a decrease of 16 percent. Perhaps even more remarkable, during the following period of economic difficulty homelessness continued to decline, albeit more slowly, even as unemployment skyrocketed over 10 percent and more Americans had trouble affording their own housing.

As jobs become more available over the coming years, the tools are in place to return to the rapid progress of 2005-2009. The possibilities are most hopeful for veterans of military service. Veterans have for many years been overrepresented among the homeless population. Now, however, homelessness among veterans is declining rapidly, because of investments in the new approach by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress. The primary rapid re-housing program for homeless veterans recently increased, bringing all parts of the solution to scale, and homelessness among veterans is being put to a quick end with a strong local efforts. With similar investment, similar results are attainable for other groups of vulnerable homeless people – those with severe disabilities, young children, and unaccompanied youth. No American deserves to be homeless, and America does not deserve to have a homelessness problem. Fortunately, the tools are available to solve its homelessness problem for good.