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Disrupting housing insecurity and homelessness

Overcoming homelessness challenges with an ecosystem approach

To combat the homelessness challenge, cities must operate with an ecosystem approach, and focus on accessing not only resources across a spectrum of housing needs, but also real-time, integrated data for more effective prevention and mitigation strategies.

In August 2016, Bergen County, New Jersey, made national headlines for doing something no county had ever done: end chronic homelessness.1 Six months later, Bergen County reached “functional zero” for its homeless veteran population as well, bringing the number of veterans experiencing homelessness below the number that can be housed within a month, to ensure that homelessness for veterans is both rare and brief.2

How did Bergen County do it?

By dispensing with its old strategies of aggregating data and one-size-fits all solutions in favor of an unorthodox approach. The county assembled a regional team, aligned around a shared goal of getting to zero; it collected real-time, person-specific data on its homeless population and used this data to redesign its response.3

The housing insecurity crisis is more urgent than ever

Homelessness is a growing problem in the United States. After falling for six straight years, the number of people experiencing homelessness nationwide started to climb in 2016, reaching 580,466 people by 2020.4

COVID-19 and its economic impact, together with climate change, further compound the challenge. Forecasters predict that COVID-19 will cause twice as much homelessness as the Great Recession, with delayed impacts and counts peaking in 2023.5

The end of the eviction moratorium has left many families in danger of losing their homes. And climate change is expected to put an increasing number of people at risk. By 2050, the United States is projected to lose over 24,000 housing units due to repeated flooding.6

What can be done to reverse this tide?

Challenging existing orthodoxies about housing insecurity and homelessness

Orthodoxies are deeply held beliefs about how things should be done. They often take the form of standard practices that help individuals and institutions function more efficiently. But they can also produce dogmatic resistance to change, and blind spots that can prevent the development of new and better methods.

The pandemic has challenged many orthodoxies—whether it’s the notion that certain services can be only delivered in person, or that work must be done in offices from 9 to 5—and shown that letting go of the norm can unlock new opportunities.

The success of Bergen County and other jurisdictions across the country is challenging governments to think differently about how to tackle housing insecurity and homelessness. New beliefs are reshaping initiatives to find shelter for people who currently lack it, and to reduce the chance that people will become homeless or relapse into homelessness once they’ve secured housing. These emerging principles include the following:

  • Accessing resources is critical across a spectrum of housing needs.
  • Real-time, integrated data is necessary to develop effective prevention and mitigation strategies.
  • Ending homelessness requires an ecosystem approach.

It’s not just about homelessness: Accessing resources is critical across a spectrum of housing needs

Individuals experiencing housing insecurity can be grouped along a spectrum of need to better understand the common challenges they face as they navigate the system (figure 1).

Take the unsheltered homeless, for example. While experiences vary widely, all individuals and families in this situation need to quickly find lifeline resources, be it space in a shelter or meals. People often don’t know how to locate resources. They find it nearly impossible to determine whether they are eligible for a shelter, or if there’s space available when they need it without a significant effort connecting directly with multiple providers. Often, a good case manager makes the difference between someone who continues to experience homelessness versus someone who gains stable housing.

The pandemic has challenged many orthodoxies—whether it’s the notion that certain services can be only delivered in person, or that work must be done in offices from 9 to 5—and shown that letting go of the norm can unlock new opportunities.

Contrast that with the needs of the housing insecure who need different supports that provide relief, whether it’s help with paying overdue rent or utilities or assistance from a housing counselor. A sudden change in one area of their life—a relationship, their health, access to transportation, or job status—could push them into homelessness. Those that are housing cost burdened face similar challenges when an unexpected life event can lead to a sudden decrease in resources available to pay rent, utilities, or a mortgage. Those experiencing housing insecurity and those that are burdened by housing costs often don’t know where to start looking for resources, or think they don’t qualify for help because they are not “technically” homeless.

The specific needs and experiences of each group determine what it will take to move them down the path to long-term housing stability.

Real-time, integrated data is necessary to develop effective prevention and mitigation strategies

Beyond recognizing the spectrum of housing needs, leading jurisdictions have made meaningful headway on deanonymizing aggregate data on homelessness and integrating it to derive insights.

At the micro level, communities need to know who is experiencing homelessness, and that list needs to be updated regularly. Annual point-in-time data isn’t sufficient. Communities such as Bergen County have used high-quality, real-time data to understand their homeless populations, tailor their response to end homelessness for high-risk populations, and sustain that progress over time.7

At the macro level, there’s a great deal of information being collected on homelessness. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) collects annual point-in-time data and housing inventory count data for all Continuum of Care (CoC) programs across the country. Homeless management information systems (HMIS) contain data collected by each CoC for reporting to HUD. The National Center for Homeless Education also maintains a database on the education of homeless youth. State and local governments collect data too.

Unfortunately, much of this data sits in jurisdictional silos, making it hard to build a complete picture of homelessness. But that is changing.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, for example, has created a “State of Homelessness” portal that aggregates data from across the nation and represents it in visual form.8 Users can employ the portal to examine sheltered versus unsheltered populations, homelessness by race and ethnicity, the availability of beds in each state, and trends in permanent housing solutions. Such open data portals offer insights into the success of various initiatives, highlighting communities that are reducing homelessness. These insights can help refocus resources to appropriate geographic regions and cohorts, both locally and nationally.

Los Angeles County (L.A. County) is using its data to understand who is at risk of homelessness, so it can develop more targeted prevention programs. In a recent project, researchers at the California Policy Lab at UCLA and UChicago Inclusive Economy Lab analyzed millions of interactions between L.A. County’s social services agencies and residents to improve the odds of correctly identifying who will become homeless from 1 in 10 to 1 in 2.9 Buoyed by the results, L.A. County launched a pilot program to target at-risk individuals and families for preventive services.

Ending homelessness requires an ecosystem approach

Homelessness is not, nor should it be, solely the government’s responsibility. A broader ecosystem with multiple stakeholders—nonprofits, the private sector, and citizen activists—is needed to help solve the problem. Case in point: Denver’s Road Home initiative.

In 2005, Denver launched a campaign to end chronic homelessness in the city. The Road Home initiative brought together government agencies, nonprofit organizations, faith communities, and local businesses to work toward several aims: find shelter and permanent housing for people who were currently homeless, help such individuals gain skills they could use to support themselves, and prevent evictions that could add to the homeless population.

A key strategy was to keep the initiative local and let communities be part of the strategy. The program asked religious congregations to sponsor and mentor qualified individuals, providing US$1,200 for a security deposit and first month’s rent, plus ongoing advice and moral support.10 It got Denver’s four professional sports teams to donate money or provide stadium boxes for engaging potential donors. Mile High United Way lent its fundraising muscle and also provided shelter space for homeless individuals in its headquarters.11

Denver’s Road Home not only helped thousands of people find or retain housing, but also showed that effective solutions can save money. Before the initiative was launched, Denver spent an average of US$40,000 a year on emergency department care, detox programs, emergency shelters, etc. for one homeless person. By 2010, the city found ways to keep people in homes for about US$15,000 each.12

With the funding made available through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, cities and counties have a once in a generation opportunity to invest in tools that will help reduce housing insecurity.

Looking ahead

To meaningfully address the growing ranks of the housing-insecure and homeless population, a mindset shift is needed. With the funding made available through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, cities and counties have a once in a generation opportunity to invest in tools that will help reduce housing insecurity. These tools will make it easier to access resources across a spectrum of housing needs, provide real-time, integrated data for more effective prevention and mitigation strategies, and help support the entire ecosystem dedicated to ending homelessness in a community. Leading jurisdictions are pointing the way forward, embracing new digital tools and data-driven, targeted approaches that call on the entire ecosystem to come together and align around a shared goal. Their success is demonstrating the value of coordinated and individualized responses using real-time data to address the spectrum of housing needs.

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  1. Kristin Kellogg, “Bergen County, New Jersey: Functional zero case study,” Community Solutions, July 10, 2020.

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  2. Ibid.

    View in Article
  3. Ibid.

    View in Article
  4. National Alliance to End Homelessness, State of Homelessness: 2021 Edition, accessed November 30, 2021.

    View in Article
  5. Daniel Flaming et al., “Locked out: Unemployment and homelessness in the COVID economy,” Economic Roundtable, January 11, 2021.

    View in Article
  6. Linda Poon, “Climate change will flood affordable housing,” Bloomberg, December 2, 2020.

    View in Article
  7. Community Solutions, “Built for zero,” accessed November 30, 2021.

    View in Article
  8. National Alliance to End Homelessness, State of homelessness.

    View in Article
  9. Doug Smith, “Is there a way to predict who will become homeless? These UCLA researchers say yes,” Los Angeles Times, December 27, 2019.

    View in Article
  10. Electa Draper, “Faith teams make strides with homeless in Denver,” The Denver Post, June 1, 2010.

    View in Article
  11. Denver’s Road Home, Denver’s Ten-year Plan to End Homelessness 2005–2015, 2015.

    View in Article
  12. Mayor’s Housing Task Force, City of Denver Housing Policy Recommendations, September 30, 2012.

    View in Article

Cover image by: Traci Daberko

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