'It is the obvious thing.' The White House tries a new tack to combat homelessness

David Hernandez, 62, crawls into his bed made with cardboard boxes in Los Angeles last week. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass has declared a state of emergency to grapple with the city's homeless crisis.

Jae C. Hong / Jae C. Hong

More people than ever are being moved out of homelessness in the U.S., just over 900,000 a year on average since 2017. The problem is that about the same number or more have lost housing in the past few years.

The Biden administration’s latest plan to fight the homelessness crisis, released Monday morning, calls for more action to keep people from losing their housing in the first place.

“We’ve gotten very, very good at providing supportive housing for people,” says Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which developed the plan. “We’ve not done a great job as a nation of turning off the faucet.”

The new plan includes a range of ways to boost the supply of affordable housing, as well as increase the number of emergency shelters and support programs. But its biggest change is a call for the “systematic prevention of homelessness,” focusing on those who are struggling to keep them from losing their housing. It sets an ambitious goal to reduce the number of unsheltered people 25% by 2025, and calls on states and local governments to use it as a model.

After a steady rise since 2016, the number of people experiencing homelessness has stabilized, according to data also released Monday. There were 582,462 on a single night in January this year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s only slightly more than the previous full count, in 2020, before the pandemic disrupted the process.

Over the course of this year, more than a million individuals and families were without housing at some point, and they were disproportionately people of color, a disparity the plan aims to address.

Most individuals were out on the streets rather than in shelters — a shift that’s raised awareness of the crisis but has also led to more communities cracking down on encampments and criminalizing sleeping or even sitting in certain public spaces.

Olivet and local advocates credit the array of federal financial help during the pandemic for preventing a sharp spike in homelessness. But with much of that aid now gone, they warn the numbers might go up again.

The latest data also shows big differences among certain groups. The numbers of unhoused veterans, families and youths are down. The numbers for single adults and those with disabilities are up.

“Where we invest, we see success,” Olivet says. “Where we don’t invest, that’s where we see the numbers rising.”

“We’re losing. … It just keeps getting worse”

Paul Downey has worked as an advocate fighting homelessness for three decades, and says the focus has always been how to help those on the streets get into a shelter, get services and get back into permanent housing. What there hasn’t been, he says, is “a lot of discussion about how we stop it from occurring in the first place,” even though “it is the obvious thing.”

Downey heads the nonprofit Serving Seniors in San Diego, where a recent count found a quarter of those unhoused are 55 or older. Over the past year there, on average, for every 10 people moved out of homelessness, 13 others fell into it for the first time.

“We’re losing, right?” he says. “No matter what we do, it just keeps getting worse and worse.”

Downey had an “aha moment” about prevention when he surveyed hundreds of seniors last year. The vast majority said just a few hundred dollars a month could keep them off the streets. He took that to local officials. Now both the City of San Diego and San Diego County have a pilot program to subsidize rent for at-risk seniors and others by up to $500 a month.

Downey says this is a bargain compared with the estimated $35,000 a year it costs for one person experiencing homelessness in San Diego, factoring in the actions of police and other first-responders, the criminal justice system and hospital emergency rooms. He plans to study the impact of the rent subsidy pilot and hopes it’s a model that can expand.

“It looks like a good economic solution in addition to, of course, being a good human solution,” he says.

Reaching those most at risk of losing housing is the challenge

At the nonprofit Friendship Place in Washington, D.C., there’s a steady stream of unhoused people coming for hot coffee, clothing, snacks and help getting placed into housing. With a severe national shortage of affordable housing, Chief Community Solutions Officer Sean Read says it’s key to find “the creative solutions, like, three steps before the full-blown emergency.”

It could be paying parking tickets, getting a driver’s license reinstated or a car repaired.

“If you can do an $800 car repair that keeps them in work that is then able to pay the $2,000 a month rent, you’ve addressed the issue earlier on at a lower cost,” Read says.

But identifying those most at risk of losing housing can be a major challenge.

Los Angeles County is trying out a computer model, developed by UCLA, that tracks data from eight different agencies. Caseworkers reach out to those who are flagged as struggling and then spend several months offering financial assistance and other support to stabilize the situation.

Olivet, who helped write the Biden homelessness plan, calls that a “sophisticated and interesting direction for us to go” and says the federal government can also do a better job of screening for risk. He says one focus should be groups most vulnerable to homelessness — people leaving prison, addiction or mental health treatment, or foster care.

“At those critical moments of transition, we have an opportunity. We know where people are,” Olivet says. “We could bridge that in-patient, or incarceration, or foster care experience straight into housing. It does not have to result in shelter or living in a tent.”

Prevention also means “more housing, more housing, more housing”

The administration’s report cites an array of reasons behind the homelessness crisis, including: a lack of public funding for affordable homes, a severe housing shortage — especially for the lowest income renters, record-high rents, wages that haven’t kept pace with those soaring housing costs, and more climate-fueled weather disasters that destroy homes. Starting last year, the worst inflation in decades only compounded the struggle for many.

Read of Friendship Place says preventing homelessness in the long term clearly demands “more housing, more housing, more housing.” And Downey, the advocate in San Diego, says the process for building it has to be faster.

Serving Seniors recently opened a new place with 117 units — and even with donated land and a big chunk of money, it took seven years.

“We had no major impediments,” Downey says. “It just took that long to grind through the system, to layer the financing that is needed to be able to build the housing.”

Among many other things, the Biden administration’s plan on homelessness includes ongoing efforts to make it easier to use federal tax credits to build low income housing, and encourages communities to rezone for denser development.

President Biden has also called for more federal funding for affordable housing, but Olivet of the Interagency Council on Homelessness says states and localities have to step up. In November’s elections, voters in a number of places across the country did approve more funding to build or subsidize affordable housing.

Separately, the Biden administration also says it will work with a number of places nationwide to help reduce their number of unsheltered people. There’s no extra money, but federal staff will join with local officials, using their expertise to help navigate the 19 different U.S. agencies that can provide support.

The specific places have not yet been named, but officials say the program will launch next year.

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