Homelessness Is Falling Despite Worsening Conditions. Why?

Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from the keynote speech given by Nan Roman, the executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, during a conference in July.  

On the Real Progress Toward Ending Homelessness:

Between 2009 and 2015 (our most recent numbers) we have:

  • Reduced homelessness by 10 percent
  • Reduced homelessness among individual adults by 9 percent
  • Reduced family homelessness by 13 percent
  • Reduced chronic homelessness by 22 percent
  • Reduced the number of people who are unsheltered by 24 percent
  • Reduced veteran homelessness by 35 percent

(We do not have the baseline data to assess our progress with homeless youth, although tremendous work has been done by talented providers all across the country.)

During this same period:

  • The population went up 5 percent
  • The rental vacancy rates fell to 7.1 percent
  • Average rents have gone up
  • Median household income went down 3 percent

So there were more people, lower incomes, but higher rents. All things being equal, the number of people who are homeless should have gone up. But it did not. It went down. Why? Because of your work.

What were some of the key things that mattered? First, there is the tremendous effort to end veteran homelessness. There was and is immense public and political will to help veterans. Congress and the Administration did a massive ramp up to end veteran homelessness, and put a lot of money behind it. New interventions were added to the toolbox, especially Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF).

At the local level, the coordination between VA Medical Centers and Continuums of Care was unprecedented. Tremendous organizing efforts were undertaken including the White House Mayors Challenge and the wonderful work of Community Solutions and others. The resultant reductions in veteran homelessness are really driving the overall reductions in homelessness.

The work to end chronic homelessness continued, increasingly with the promise of Medicaid to fund services. We made progress, but we did run into some roadblocks toward the end. We did not get the money from Congress to go all the way to scale and solve the problem. That is on them.

The message here is that with adequate resources, the right tools (rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing, outreach, and crisis beds), improved local coordination, a Housing First approach, and a sense of urgency, we can end homelessness.

On How the Homelessness System Works:

Homelessness is a type of housing crisis experienced by very poor people. The homelessness system is a crisis response system. It responds to crises caused by deep poverty, racism, and inequality. It responds to lack of opportunity, violence, and prejudice. And it responds to a profoundly inadequate public system of care that too often fails the most vulnerable people.

However, while the homeless system’s goal is to end crises, the help it gives has a much more significant impact on those it serves. It is crisis help, but because people are resourceful and poverty is fluid, it is often enough to not just to end their crises, but set people on the path to well-being. It often does not take much help for people to get back on their feet and thrive: it just takes the right help. But make no mistake, people’s homelessness must be ended before they can get on with all the other things that we, as a nation, value and hope for them.

Absent a significant increase in affordable housing (and I hope there will be such an increase) it is likely that the housing problems of poor households will worsen in the near future. If housing affordability problems worsen, there will be more housing instability. If there is more housing instability, more and more families will become homeless.

If families are increasingly unstable, and increasingly lose their housing, we need to be the system that quickly bounces them back into housing; not a system that captures and keeps them. If they lose their housing again next year—and they very well may—we should bounce them back again. And again. Because even though housing instability is bad, homelessness is worse, and families cannot solve their problems while they are homeless. If we do not move people through our crisis system, we will have more families on the streets.

Is this putting people on a housing roller coaster? I do not think so. Getting housing does, eventually, lead to increased employment, income, stability, and well-being. We must not needlessly prolong homelessness or delay families’ returns to housing, support networks, employment, and school. In the increasingly brief time families are homeless, we need to ensure that there is enough crisis accommodation for them, and that it is adequate to meet the needs of children, and resourced to focus on exits and connection to employment and support.

What’s Next?

The good news is that we know how to end homelessness. We can end homelessness. And it is right that the United States should end homelessness. Accordingly, we propose the following goals to be achieved by the end of the new administration.

  • First, that no child will be homeless. We must ensure that children have the stability they need, that their families are supported, and that we break any cycle of multi-generational homelessness. This means that if children and their families lose their housing, they will very quickly be returned to housing, and that we will do a much better job of preventing them from becoming homelessness. And I would challenge us here in this room, starting today, that no infant, at all, should be unsheltered. Surely we can make a commitment that from now on, if we find an infant in a car, on the street, in a campground that we will find a place to house them now?
  • Second, every woman and man who becomes homeless has a decent, supportive, but short-term accommodation where they can stay on their way back to housing and services help in the community. No one will be unsheltered or un-helped.
  • Third, we will have finished the job of ending veteran and chronic homelessness. We know what to do. This is a matter of achieving scale.
  • And finally, we will have what we need, in terms of data and evidence on interventions, as well as resources and capacity, to end homelessness among youth and young adults.

In this way, we will achieve the goal of ending homelessness by the end of the next administration. We have earlier target dates on some of these, and we will not abandon those. But if we fail to make those targets, we fall back on these commitments.

Getting these commitments alone will not be enough, of course. We will need action and specific strategies. We will work with you and our partners at national housing, health care, child and family, education and youth organizations, among many others, to craft action steps. These activities will give you a taste.

  • We are working with a broad coalition of family, education, health care and housing organizations to advance the proposal for $11 billion in mandatory spending to help homeless families. Short-term action is needed this year, but this is a long-term prospect.
  • We are working with our affordable housing colleagues to take advantage of what feels like a moment of opportunity on the affordable housing front to propose a to-scale housing initiative that would stop the ridiculous practice of allowing millions of vulnerable families and individuals to struggle just to put a roof over their heads. This is especially because not housing them has economic and social costs that far outweigh what it would cost to house them. We are determined and indeed optimistic that we can make progress here!
  • We are working with the broad coalition at A Way Home America to scope the breadth and approach to youth and young adult homelessness, and to lock in on and fully implement a set of investments to end it.

There is so much work to be done, and so much opportunity.

Homelessness is not the simplest problem, but it is also not that complicated. Housing ends homelessness. It also helps people get on with all the other things that will allow them to achieve well-being and self-fulfillment. The solutions to homelessness are not all that complex, but implementing them can be. Political will, your skill, and resources are what is needed.

We know we can solve this problem. So we will ask for what we need so that no child, no family, no young person, no one in our country, our already great country, is homeless.

(Photo above: Nan Roman, the executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, speaks to homelessness service providers at a July conference. Photo courtesy of Erin Fitzgerald.)

Nan Roman is president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.


  1. Dear Nan,

    As a professional social work colleague and community development specialist, I admire and applaud your work.

    Yet, I also know from first hand work in communities across the US that the HUD required Point in Time Counts do not completely measure the tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of the “nearly homeless” that reside temporarily in “low budget, high cost” hotels and motels.

    For instance, I recently heard a director of social services state that, in a recent Point in Time Count in a small community of ~7500 people (part of a 1.1 million person MSA), only three persons were counted as homeless. However, according to the public school bus driver that picked up 40 children each day from two local hotels in the small community, the number of homeless far exceeds the three persons identified in the Point in Time Count (see McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act).

    It is my experience across numerous communities that with the virtual elimination of HUD Emergency Shelter Grants and shift in HUD funding focus to Housing First and Rapid Rehousing, large scale homelessness has been displaced to “low budget, high cost” hotels and motels and other less conspicuous places.

    I agree with and support the Housing First model; however, there is far too little funding and far too little support for this model. The result of limited funding and limited support are increased homelessness, “near homelessness” (i.e. hotels and motels), and another housing crisis ready to unfold.

    it is time to conduct cost benefit analyses to determine and apply the most effective and efficient use of funding in reducing and eliminating homelessness and poverty. Either invest strongly in Housing First or put funding back into increasing emergency shelter space that helps the homeless with a hand up – not just a hand out.

  2. Nan, I share your policy analysis and appreciate your optimism. Yet in 2016 cities up and down the West Coast (LA, San Jose, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle) are setting new records for encampments. NYC homelessness has also gotten worse. Meanwhile, the nation’s housing and homelessness crisis is off the national political radar and has barely even been mentioned during the 2016 presidential campaign. The organization I head is SF’s leading provider of permanent housing to formerly homeless single adults and our city has more resources than most to add new affordable housing. But without more federal dollars I think we’ll be still talking about the homeless crisis a decade from now.

  3. I’m in San Diego where the numbers of homeless and the areas of homeless encampments are increasing daily.

    The San Diego Housing Commission, with the approval of the San Diego Housing Authority (also known as the San Diego City Council) has approved the use of affordable housing funds for gentrification, and supports punitive smoking bans that will cause elderly smokers like myself to be evicted.

    The priorities for those charged with creating affordable housing and reducing homelessness are finding ways to increase property values and banning smoking. Creating affordable housing and reducing homelessness may be their mandate, and the reason they earn and control millions of dollars, but these simply aren’t their priorities at all.


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