David Lucas, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, offered a testimony before U.S. Congress during a hearing entitled, “Homeless in America: Examining the Crisis and Solutions to End Homelessness,” based on his research in this area. Lucas was joined at the hearing by Ann Marie Oliva, senior policy advisor at Corporation for Supportive Services, Nan Roman, president and CEO of National Alliance to end Homelessness, Joshua Stewart, director of policy for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Justin T. Rush, public policy director for the True Colors Fund, and Carolyn Darley, speaker advocate from the National Coalition for the Homelessness.
A key focus of the hearing was a series of bills that would provide over $13 billion in federal funding for targeted homeless assistance programs. Over the past decade, spending on such programs doubled from $3 billion to $6 billion, with much of this funding devoted to permanent supportive housing and a new “Housing First” approach. However, this increase in funding has only reduced homelessness slightly, indicating little correlation between the two. Unsheltered homelessness only declined by 32,000 people from 2009 to 2018, despite the addition of 142,000 additional permanent supportive housing beds and 100,000 rapid rehousing beds to the homeless assistance system.
Lucas’ testimony described the scholarly evidence that affirms the limited results of these significant funding efforts. Lucas explained that some studies have found that permanent supportive housing, the main shelter alternative prioritized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, did increase housing retention for individuals. However, the expansion of permanent supportive housing nationally has had a minimal effect in reducing homeless populations. One study suggested that it takes ten additional permanent supportive housing beds in a community to reduce homelessness by just one person. This would suggest the need for five and a half million additional permanent supportive housing beds to end homelessness for the 552,000 people who were counted as homeless in 2018—not including those who become homeless in the future. Lucas concluded that the approach is unlikely to be cost effective and unlikely to achieve the government’s stated goal of ending homelessness.
Lucas suggested that the ineffectiveness at reducing homelessness is due to the multiplicity of local and individual causes of homelessness, from job loss, mental illness, and substance abuse challenges to local housing regulations. Factors such as climate, state and local policy, and the nature of community ties also need to be considered, as they affect the way in which homelessness affects communities. This in turn leads to variance in how effective these specific programs can be in addressing and preventing the issue when applied nationwide. Because of this heterogeneity, communities and individuals require unique, tailored approaches, according to Lucas’ research. However, the current legislation only affords limited flexibility to providers
Thus, several factors must be considered when formulating approaches to fighting homelessness, for there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Since there is not a universal solution for homelessness, Lucas claims that, “allowing service providers more flexibility for experimentation, paired with the prioritization of performance data, will facilitate a more compassionate, effective, and truly evidence-based response.”
Lucas advises against the use of a single, top-down approach to incentivize providers to conform to a single approach to homeless services. Instead, providers should have flexibility to innovate in the use of scarce resources in efforts to reduce homelessness in local communities. Lucas also stresses the importance of investing in data collection on the performance of organizations and communities addressing homelessness. Utilizing this data and ensuring flexibility in programs will ultimately help in discovering new, more effective solutions.
To read Lucas’ full testimony, click here.
To watch the hearing, click the video below: