Acton Institute Powerblog

Housing Alone Doesn’t End Homelessness

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homeless-1105Homelessness seems like it should be one of the most straightforward social problems to solve. The obvious solution would be to simply give people in need a place to live.

Getting people off the street and into shelter is certainly be beneficial. And in the winter months it can even save lives. But does providing housing end homelessness?

Unfortunately, as Kevin C. Corinth explains, housing people who are homeless doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of people who are homeless over the long run:

Up to now, there has been little nationwide evidence about how housing affects the number of homeless people.  That hasn’t stopped the Obama administration from doubling down on housing as its key solution for ending homelessness.  The number of permanent supportive housing beds for formerly homeless people has grown by more than 50% since 2007.

In new research, however, I find no evidence that permanent housing for the homeless has reduced the number of homeless people.  Communities that increased housing saw small immediate reductions in their homeless populations, but these reductions were wiped out after one year.  Meanwhile, communities that cut shelters saw major reductions in homelessness with no additional people found sleeping on the street.

Does this mean we should cut all housing and shelter programs for the homeless?  Absolutely not.

For one thing, the study has important limitations.  The data I use are highly imperfect (although they are the same data used by the Obama administration to assess the nation’s success in ending homelessness).  Counts of the unsheltered homeless are conducted on a single night in January by volunteers throughout the country, and many people may be missed.  Also, it’s possible that the communities that added housing or shelter would have had even more people in shelters or on the streets had they not done so.

But even if shelters do not significantly decrease the number of people literally sleeping on the street, and even if housing does not lead to major reductions in homelessness, they can still be good things.  Shelters can provide respite from unsafe living conditions and offer needed supportive services.  Permanent housing can serve as a platform for overcoming other challenges like addiction and untreated mental illness.  The problem with evaluating our homeless assistance system solely based on how many homeless people we find is that we evaluate it less on how it actually assists the homeless.

I suspect this study won’t be a surprise to those who work serving the homeless. The reasons people live on the street are complex and often rooted in the specific context of the individual. Providing housing for people who can’t take care of themselves is not likely to be a long-term solution.

This study is yet another reminder that we should be more humble about thinking that we can solve the problem by writing a check or implementing a new government program. Obviously, we should do what is possible to help the homeless find safety and shelter. But we shouldn’t think that we are going to make much of a difference unless we are able to address the underlying problems, like drug addiction and mental illness, that often lead to homelessness.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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