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Homelessness in the United States: Insights from the Annual Homeless Assessment Report


Keywords: Homelessness, Annual Homeless Assessment Report, Rental Assistance, Affordable Housing

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Homelessness in the United States: Insights from the Annual Homeless Assessment Report

Residential buildings in a Chicago neighborhood. Having a coordinated entry system at the local level that allows residents to apply for multiple support services in a single place, as is done in Chicago, is an important strategy for addressing homelessness. Photo credit: Andrews

After stabilizing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness rates in the United States rose sharply as pandemic-era emergency rental assistance programs and eviction moratoria expired. HUD’s 2023 Annual Homeless Assessment Report found a double-digit increase in the percentage of people experiencing homelessness over the previous year. On February 22, 2024, the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) of Harvard University hosted a webinar to highlight the report’s findings and discuss its implications. Jeff Olivet, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), discussed trends, challenges, and improvements in addressing homelessness, and Beth Horwitz, vice president of strategy and innovation at All Chicago, the city’s coordinated entry system, summarized the crisis from a ground-level perspective. Howard Koh, professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and David Luberoff, director of fellowship and events at JCHS, moderated the session.

Current State of Homelessness

The speakers explained that pandemic-era investments helped Americans who were experiencing or on the verge of experiencing homelessness. Olivet said that the federal government provided more rental assistance between 2021 and 2023 than it had in the previous 20 years combined. He estimates that federal efforts helped more than 400,000 households exit or avoid homelessness in 2023. Horwitz explained that the city of Chicago was able to "use that unprecedented federal investment and try a lot of new things to try to house people quickly and at a scale [they] weren't used to," including moving many people who had been experiencing homelessness to permanent housing.

Starting in 2022, however, a tight housing market coupled with the discontinuation of several pandemic-era protections such as rental assistance and eviction moratoria led to a drastic increase in homelessness rates among both people who were sheltered and those who were living on the streets. While noting that rates of homelessness have increased among all population groups, the speakers focused on several specific segments. Olivet said that as housing costs continue to increase, many older Americans on fixed incomes have been experiencing homelessness for the first time. He explained that one triggering event, such as the loss of a spouse, can generate enough emotional and financial distress to cause a person to spiral into homelessness. Olivet also acknowledged specific challenges in rural communities, which often have a shortage of both affordable housing and well-paying jobs. Homelessness tends to be less visible in rural areas, where families commonly double or triple up in a small unit. To provide a local perspective, Horwitz highlighted several specific trends in Chicago. For example, she explained that a significant number of the 35,000 migrants who moved to the city in 2023 are living in shelters.

Despite these trends, the speakers argued that past reductions in homelessness rates demonstrate that certain efforts to combat the crisis can be successful. For example, Olivet said that federal programs helped reduce homelessness rates among veterans by more than 50 percent. This drastic sustained decrease, Olivet said, "gives us a proof point that when we invest in housing and wraparound health care that we know how to end homelessness."

Addressing Homelessness

Olivet and Horwitz discussed general strategies to address homelessness. Both speakers emphasized the success of Housing First models, which provide permanent housing to those experiencing homelessness without imposing sobriety requirements or other preconditions. “It was transformative when Housing First came along,” Olivet said, noting the program has a success rate of 85 to 90 percent. In fact, offering unconditional housing and support services to people experiencing homelessness has been shown to help residents address the issues that might have excluded them from previous homelessness programs. Olivet also expressed support for resuming small emergency payments to those on the verge of losing their homes, noting that a relatively small subsidy can keep many residents on tight budgets in housing. A 2023 study by the University of California San Francisco found that a rental subsidy of between $300 and $500 per month could prevent most households from experiencing homelessness. The speakers also discussed the importance of having a coordinated entry system at the local level that allows residents to apply for multiple support services in a single place, as is done in Chicago. Horwitz said that All Chicago plans to reduce certain requirements to ensure that an inability to produce a Social Security card or birth certificate will not keep applicants out of housing.

A “Multisystem” Approach

The panelists were optimistic that federal, state, and local governments could build on the success of pandemic-era initiatives to combat homelessness and highlighted some of the efforts announced in the past year. The Biden administration recently expanded the ability of states to use Medicaid funding to support those experiencing homelessness. HUD also recently announced its largest investment to date in the Continuum of Care program to address homelessness. In addition, USICH provides technical assistance to help state and local governments combat homelessness. Meanwhile, at the state level, the governor of Illinois recently approved an investment of more than $300 million in housing and homeless programs. While explaining the importance of these homeless response efforts, however, both speakers emphasized the need for a “multisystem” approach to addressing homelessness. “Expecting the homelessness system to solve homelessness is a little bit like expecting the emergency room to solve obesity,” Olivet said, suggesting that government should do more to prevent homelessness in the first place. In addition to increasing the housing stock and the availability of vouchers to ensure more people have permanent stable housing, the panelists believe that reforms in the criminal justice, foster care, and healthcare systems will be necessary to adequately combat homelessness.

Published Date: 30 April 2024

This article was written by Sage Computing Inc, under contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.