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|Ten Year Plan: Executive Summary|
Thirty years ago there was not wide-spread homelessness in America. Tonight nearly a million people will be homeless, despite a two billion dollar a year infrastructure designed to deal with the problem. Can homelessness be ended?
While the seeds of homelessness were planted in the 1960s and 1970s with deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people and loss of affordable housing stock, wide-spread homelessness did not emerge until the 1980s. Several factors have affected its growth over the last two decades. Housing has become scarcer for those with little money. Earnings from employment and from benefits have not kept pace with the cost of housing for low income and poor people. Services that every family needs for support and stability have become harder for very poor people to afford or find.
In addition to these systemic causes, social changes have exacerbated the personal problems of many poor Americans, leading to them to be more vulnerable to homelessness. These social trends have included new kinds of illegal drugs, more single parent and teen-headed households with low earning power, and thinning support networks.
These causes of homelessness must be addressed. People who are homeless must be helped, and the current system does this reasonably well for many of those who become homeless. But the homeless assistance system can neither prevent people from becoming homeless nor change the overall availability of housing, income, and services that will truly end homelessness.
Mainstream social programs, on the other hand, do have the ability to prevent and end homelessness. These are programs like welfare, health care, mental health care, substance abuse treatment, veterans’ assistance, and so on. These programs, however, are over-subscribed. Perversely, the very existence of the homeless assistance system encourages these mainstream systems to shift the cost and responsibility for helping the most vulnerable people to the homeless assistance system. This dysfunctional situation is becoming more and more institutionalized. Can nothing be done?
Ending Homelessness in Ten Years
The Board of Directors of the National Alliance to End Homelessness believes that, in fact, ending homelessness is well within the nation's grasp. We can reverse the incentives in mainstream systems so that rather than causing homelessness, they are preventing it. And we can make the homeless assistance system more outcome-driven by tailoring solution-oriented approaches more directly to the needs of the various sub-populations of the homeless population. In this way, homelessness can be ended within ten years.
To end homelessness in ten years, the following four steps should be taken, simultaneously.
Plan for Outcomes
Today most American communities plan how to manage homelessness—not how to end it. In fact, new data has shown that most localities could help homeless people much more effectively by changing the mix of assistance they provide. A first step in accomplishing this is to collect much better data at the local level. A second step is to create a planning process that focuses on the outcome of ending homelessness and then brings to the table not just the homeless assistance providers, but the mainstream state and local agencies and organizations whose clients are homeless.
Close the Front Door
The homeless assistance system ends homelessness for thousands of people every day, but they are quickly replaced by others. People who become homeless are almost always clients of public systems of care and assistance. These include the mental health system, the public health system, the welfare system, and the veterans system, as well as the criminal justice and the child protective service systems (including foster care). The more effective the homeless assistance system is in caring for people, the less incentive these other systems have to deal with the most troubled people and the more incentive they have to shift the cost of serving them to the homeless assistance system.
This situation must be reversed. The flow of incentives can favor helping the people with the most complex problems. As in many other social areas, investment in prevention holds the promise of saving money on expensive systems of remedial care.
Open the Back Door
Most people who become homeless enter and exit homelessness relatively quickly. Although there is a housing shortage, they accommodate this shortage and find housing. There is a much smaller group of people which spends more time in the system. The latter group—the majority of whom are chronically homeless and chronically ill—virtually lives in the shelter system and is a heavy user of other expensive public systems such as hospitals and jails.
People should be helped to exit homelessness as quickly as possible through a Housing First approach. For the chronically homeless, this means permanent supportive housing (housing with services)—a solution that will save money as it reduces the use of other public systems. For families and less disabled single adults, it means getting people very quickly into permanent housing and linking them with services. People should not spend years in homeless systems, either in shelter or in transitional housing.
Build the Infrastructure
While the systems can be changed to prevent homelessness and shorten the experience of homelessness, ultimately people will continue to be threatened with instability until the supply of affordable housing is increased; incomes of the poor are adequate to pay for necessities such as food, shelter, and health care and disadvantaged people can receive the services they need. Attempts to change the homeless assistance system must take place with the context of larger efforts to help very poor people.
Taking these steps will change the dynamic of homelessness. While it will not stop people from losing their housing, it will alter the way in which housing crises are dealt with. While it will not end poverty, it will require that housing stability be a measure of success for those who assist poor people. The National Alliance to End Homelessness believes that these adjustments are necessary to avoid the complete institutionalization of homelessness. If implemented over time, they can lead to an end to homelessness within ten years.