Cities in the United States face increasing homelessness. The most successful solutions are linking residents with the services they need to become — and remain — successfully housed.
The matter is even more urgent now that the U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling allowing homeless individuals to sleep on public property if not enough shelter beds are available.
Homelessness is a complex issue. And while cities have limited ways to mitigate structural problems, such as stagnant wage growth, unemployment rates or systemic poverty, governments can excel at connecting people with effective programs and resources. High rates of homelessness in urban markets such as Portland will likely require social services to play an even more significant role in finding and creating housing.
Government entities frequently tie homelessness to tenant protections and eviction reform, but in their book "Homelessness: Prevention Strategies and Effectiveness," Martha Burt, Carol Pearson and Ann Elizabeth Montgomery argue that predictors of homelessness often work in combination and may not be entirely reliable. Only 20% of families that face eviction end up homeless. Eviction reforms may help tenants stay housed, but they are not adequate to prevent homelessness on a larger scale. When other factors contribute to a family's homelessness, one-size-fits-all solutions are inadequate. Policies must allow for communities and service providers to identify those most vulnerable based on a variety of criteria. The goals of specific housing policies must be clarified to help citizens determine whether a plan is explicitly intended as either tenant protection or homeless prevention.
Recent years have seen the rise of "Housing First" policies to address homelessness. Housing First refers to policies aiming to house vulnerable residents and providing Intensive Case Management (ICM) or wraparound services. A 2015 randomized study published in the Journals of the American Medical Association found that homeless adults with mental illness in four Canadian cities had stable housing 63% to 77% of the time with ICM, compared to 24% to 32% for those without it. More recently, Houston, Texas, has been similarly successful at curbing homelessness using the Housing First model by providing housing without preconditions like sobriety or employment and providing services to address existing issues.
Homelessness is not easily predicted and is often the result of personal and societal problems. Efforts to get and keep people off the streets requires both targeted and localized solutions. Specialized caseworkers are needed to help homeless residents receive the interventions necessary to remain housed. This navigation works best when homeless and vulnerable residents are placed first into permanent housing with available services and, even more promising, it results in public cost savings. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reported in 2017 that chronic homelessness costs taxpayers $30,000 to $50,000 per person per year compared with $20,000 per person for supportive housing.
Municipalities must determine whether their programs function as tenant protections or homelessness prevention. Making clear the goals of proposed policies, and how those policies will work toward those goals, will empower residents to determine which programs will best serve their communities.
Jennifer Shuch is the senior research analyst at HFO Investment Real Estate in Portland.
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