How To Help End Homelessness: 7 Services And Resources
March 31, 2023 10-minute read
Author: Victoria Araj
Having a roof over your head is a basic necessity. However, for many Americans, renting even a small room is inaccessible, and buying a home is completely out of reach. When individuals experience chronic homelessness, defined as living on the street for 12 or more consecutive months, 60% develop lifetime mental health problems, and 80% develop lifetime drug and alcohol dependencies.1
By adopting a “Housing First” approach, the community can redefine what’s possible in ending homelessness. The approach calls for rapid relocation to give people a permanent and stable place to live as soon as possible.
We can see the long-term success of the “Housing First” approach in Helsinki, Finland, where they halved 18,000 cases of homelessness from 2008 to 2019 by implementing the principle.2 In the U.S., programs like Built for Zero have made headway solving chronic homelessness and have reached a functional zero for communities around the U.S., and it’s just the beginning.
So what does homelessness look like in America today? What programs exist, and how can you get involved? Use this post as a baseline guide to help end homelessness in your community.
Table of Contents:
Homelessness In America
In 2010, the federal government released a set of goals called the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) Opening Doors initiative that aimed to end all types of homelessness by 2020.3 The plan includes ending and preventing chronic and veteran homelessness in 5 years and families and youth in 10 years.
While it’s difficult to measure the exact population of those experiencing homelessness, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) releases a Point-In-Time (PIT) count of those who have used shelters, transitional housing or are present during street counts. In 2010, the count reached 649,879 people4 and in 2019, that number decreased to 567,715 people.5
At the time of writing, HUD has yet to release its figures for the estimated homeless population in 2020, but a study conducted by Columbia University estimates that the population of people experiencing homelessness increased by 40 – 45% nationwide following the COVID-19 pandemic.6
How The Housing Crisis Began
Today, the housing crisis exists because of a number of factors, namely, the lack of affordable housing as the salary to own a home increases in most metropolitan areas. Other factors can include illness and disability, living in poverty, mental illness, substance abuse and unemployment due to personal hardship.
But how did the crisis begin?
Homelessness became prevalent after veterans who served in the Civil War struggled to find jobs and permanent housing.7 Exacerbated by economic downturns, wars and strict zoning, homelessness persisted throughout the years claiming many Americans who now cycle through jails, hospitals and shelters.
As it stands, the need for housing services to solve the crisis varies across the nation, as the population of people experiencing homelessness differs from state to state.
States Most Affected By Homeless Crises
Change in Homeless Population (2018–2019)
Source: US Department of Housing and Urban Development
How To End Homelessness With Services
Finding effective crisis response solutions helps identify those experiencing homelessness, prevents at-risk cases and provides necessary shelter and services as quickly as possible.
Permanent Supportive Housing
Permanent supportive housing programs are designed as a solution with longevity to ending homelessness in the community. The service offers long-term rental assistance in affordable housing, supportive services (such as health care) and personalized case management for the most vulnerable community members suffering from chronic homelessness. By providing tools that build skills for independent living, the program creates a long-term solution for homelessness as participants reenter society.
Permanent supportive housing not only offers a solution to closing the housing gap and getting people out of homelessness altogether, but it lowers federal and state costs related to emergency shelters, jails and hospitals.8
“Once we took on homelessness as a city and as a community, everyone took ownership in [ending homelessness] and everyone had a sense of pride in it.”
— John Meier, Veteran, U.S. Marine Corps, Built for Zero Leader
The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides a directory of grants and resources for people experiencing homelessness, policymakers, division resources and agency-specific information.
Who it’s for: Permanent housing is for people experiencing homelessness, prioritized by the most vulnerable cases such as severe mental and developmental disabilities.
The goal of rapid rehousing is to lower the time a household experiences homelessness. By reducing the time families experience homelessness, this program lessens the negative effects of prolonged exposure to living without a home. This solution helps households avoid returning to the streets in the short-term by connecting them to permanent housing and supportive community services for long-term stability.
Rapid rehousing consists of three primary goals:
- Identifying housing
- Assistance with rent and move-in costs
- Case-by-case community services to help support a family’s stability
Federal, state and charitable programs offering funding for rapid rehousing services include HUD’s Continuum of Care (COC) and Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG); HHS’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); Title IV E Foster Care and Community Services Block Grant (CSBG); and the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program.
Who it’s for: Rapid rehousing assists families suffering from homelessness without the barriers of other services, like requirements for previous employment, income, lack of criminal record and sobriety.
Shared housing consists of two or more people living in the same building and sharing costs. It’s an immediate option for those moving out of shelters. By offering affordable and flexible housing with similar individuals, this service decreases isolation with support from others who have experienced homelessness and provides a widespread housing solution to maximize the utilization of vacant homes.
To become part of the National Shared Housing Resource Center (NSHRC), check that your organization meets the criteria, and send an application to be listed in the program directory.
Who it’s for: Shared housing is for single adults at-risk for and moving out of homelessness.
Creating Career Opportunities
Housing instability is often created by financial insecurity. A lack of employment opportunities makes finding a stable income difficult in the current economy, and even if employment opportunities exist, it doesn’t necessarily mean escaping from poverty.
By stabilizing the income for those suffering from homelessness, many will qualify for additional rent subsidy programs and, in turn, be able to transition out of homelessness and live independently.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act provides funding for programs that create employment opportunities for entry-level and low-skilled workers. Its services include transportation and childcare services, which can impact the ability to hold employment for many.
How to support: Host a training class in a community center or local shelter.
Completing high school is a contributing factor in whether or not youth will suffer from homelessness at some point in their lives. Children and youth who don’t earn a high school diploma are 346% more likely to experience homelessness than those with a diploma.9 Additionally, school-based support for children who are living without a consistent home can help them develop the skills needed to become stable and independent, and rise out of homelessness.
State and federal grants fund programs that evaluate students’ needs and provide them with free education, transportation, immunization, proper enrollment, assistance with attendance, residency and proper guardianship.
How to support: Become a mentor for youth experiencing homelessness in your community.
Health Care For All
Oftentimes, chronic health conditions lead to homelessness. Typically seen as a downward spiral from lack of insurance that leads to job loss, downsizing and eventually eviction. Conversely, homelessness can worsen overall health and decrease lifespan by 30 years, on average.10 In many cases, housing is health care.
In turn, people experiencing homelessness visit the emergency department an estimated five times per year, costing hospitals an average of $18,500 per person annually.11 Providing housing lowers their dependence on emergency services and lowers costs to the state.
In the interim, Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) serves one million people without homes in the community and is designated to provide federally funded primary care and treatment. Its directory provides state-specific resources for finding health services.
How to support: Create information cards with local resources to give to people experiencing homelessness.
The reasons people struggle with homelessness vary widely. For some, it’s a lack of unemployment or personal hardship. For others, it’s due to mental illness and substance abuse. Perhaps the most difficult task of ending homelessness lies in the need to tailor programs effectively across a number of different groups. We’ll take a look at some of the main drivers of homelessness below.
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Veterans Struggling With Homelessness
Veterans face a set of unique challenges when transitioning back into civilian life. Like most who experience homelessness, there isn’t a single reason veterans may find themselves without a place to call home. The lack of affordable housing, unemployment and PTSD are all contributing factors, just to name a few.
Veterans who struggle with homelessness often suffer from more than just living without a roof over their heads. Many experience recurring disorders and PTSD, and finding stability through housing addresses many of the obstacles veterans face to find treatment and live with stability.
The following programs offer services to address solutions for veterans experiencing homelessness:
- A Home For Every Vet: A program that offers permanent housing to as many Veterans and chronically homeless individuals as possible on a community level.
- VA Health Care: A health care network of outpatient clinics, vet centers and VA hospitals for veterans.
- Run by United Way: A national service that provides help finding needed resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
To end chronic homelessness, programs focus on four main objectives. The first involves outreach to connect people experiencing, and at-risk for, homelessness with services. The second is prevention to help reduce the overall population of people without homes. The third is managing support immediately with temporary housing and emergency services. The final objective includes finding permanent and long-term housing to support stability, independence and reintegration into the community.
Homelessness And Mental Health
The most common mental illnesses that people enduring homelessness experience are bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and anxiety. Researchers have found that mental stability as it correlates to homelessness is a cycle rather than an effect.12
Oftentimes, mental illness leads to problems that create difficulty in stable environments and lead to homelessness. In other cases, people develop these illnesses after living on the street and self-medicating as coping mechanisms, frequently with drugs or alcohol. Programs that provide homes with longevity in addition to models of care help improve the outcomes of treating mental health disorders. Services like street psychiatry reduce the number of individuals experiencing homelessness visiting federally funded hospitals, jails and psychiatric hospitals.13
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) funds programs to support those experiencing homelessness who also suffer from serious mental illnesses.
Homelessness and Substance Abuse
Similar to mental health, substance abuse is often both a cause and an effect of homelessness. When people who suffer from homelessness also have substance addiction disorders, there are limited options. Oftentimes, federally funded programs require sobriety in order for people to receive assistance and many substance abuse treatments won’t accept mental health patients. With challenging barriers to entry, many people living without homes turn back to illicit drugs to cope.
In a study conducted by the Yale School of Medicine, they found half of the 14,086 participants with substance abuse disorders had the same positive response to long-term housing after 6 months in the facility, indicating the success of the “Housing First” approach, although further treatment may be needed once housed14.
Medicated-Assisted Treatment (MAT) is a program that services treatment for people experiencing homelessness and substance abuse to help prevent relapse and facilitate longer periods of sobriety when coupled with primary care.
- Practice smart giving: Consider giving food, a gift card, blankets, water, a first aid kit or other basic necessities.
- Volunteer your time: Volunteer at local soup kitchens, shelters or as a mentor with youth organizations.
- Have a conversation: Everyone has life experiences to share. Strike up a respectful conversation with someone and learn their story.
- Make a donation: Donate either monetarily or with needed goods to local shelters and organizations.
- Participate in the Point-In-Time (PIT) count: The HUD PIT count allows government officials data about homeless populations in communities in order to allocate the proper amount of funds in each area. Get involved in your community’s next PIT count to help gather accurate data about the population of people experiencing homelessness.
- Share your hobbies: Find community events or volunteer your time to teach a class at a local shelter and share a skill.
- Get informed: Research and support local political candidates that share your views to help end homelessness in your community.
Homeless Assistance Programs
Homeless assistance programs serve both individuals and families who suffer from homelessness and are at-risk for homelessness across the nation. If you or someone you know is experiencing homelessness, the following resources, among others, are available for support:
- Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG): Federal and state programs that provide housing for emergency shelter and assistance.
- Continuum of Care (CoC): Funds non-profit organizations and communities to rapidly rehouse individuals and families experiencing homelessness.
- State Medicaid-Housing Agency Partnerships: A community integration project that combines both housing and healthcare initiatives for individuals and families.
- Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs: Supports youth-specific outreach, rapid rehousing, transitional housing and long-term housing for children and teens who are experiencing homelessness.
Creating and maintaining a response system for people experiencing homelessness will help to effectively end the crisis, versus managing it. Doing so will help those individuals gain stability and independence, whether that be renting a space with earned income or gaining confidence to save for purchasing a home of their own. Not only does helping to end homelessness help community members, but it frees up funds to reallocate where it’s needed most. Federal, state, local and charitable organizations have made a clear roadmap for solving the homelessness crisis, but the work has just begun.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- World Economic Forum
- US Department of Housing and Urban Development
- 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report
- 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report
- Community Solutions: Analysis on Unemployment Projects
- Bloomberg City Lab: Understanding Homelessness in America
- United States Interagency Council on Homelessness
- Voices of Youth Count
- Premature Mortality in Homeless Populations: A Review of the Literature
- American Health Drug Benefits: The Business Case for Ending Homelessness
- Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
- Psychiatric Times
- Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine
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