I recently came across a well-researched online article on homelessness in the United States, and the potential for us to end this problem – if we just had a little more political will to fully fund the housing subsidies needed to sweep the streets clean of the chronically homeless population.
While I am generally pleased to see any journalistic attention paid to this daunting and commonly ignored social blight, I worry about the incompleteness of the conversation.
First, who are we talking about?
The homeless population is larger and far more complex than those who are chronically homeless, often thought of as the street people we disregard on sidewalks and stairways. The overall homeless population includes families, children, and youth who are unlikely to show up on the streets and even in shelters and therefore also unlikely to be “counted.” Learn more about youth homelessness & resiliency from Ayala Livny.
Second, is moving somebody off the street and under a roof really our end game?
This article points to research showing that housing subsidies effectively end homelessness for people. Indeed, research evidence does show that a subsidy is critical to moving people out of homelessness – and sure, that follows logically. But does this guarantee residential stability? Does it ensure that formerly homeless folks have opportunities to regain the supports and opportunities that go along with that? Are we really helping people to not only stay indoors, but to pursue stable jobs that pay a livable wage, physical and emotional wellness, and supportive relationships?
A recent systematic review on housing and service interventions for homeless families offers a sharp and important contrast to the commonly one-sided discussion about ending homelessness.
The authors point out how the concept of residential stability has been ill defined. Studies often look to point-in-time, literal housing status to determine the impact of housing subsidies over time. But, these families who are “successfully housed” often experience multiple moves within the follow-up period; people who are “successfully employed” often burn through multiple low-wage jobs; and mental health, addiction, and trauma remain inadequately addressed – for parents, children, and youth alike. In one study alone, one-half of homeless mothers met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. Only 5 percent received treatment. How do we expect these young moms to successfully anchor their families over the long-term without proper supports? A subsidy can only do so much.
We need to widen our lens when developing research questions and policy directions and embrace the varied factors that lead to homelessness and poverty – including those factors that lead to wellness and stability.
Hear more from Kristen by listening to "Recovery Housing and Homelessness,"a t3 Podcast:
Editor's Note: this article was originally published in October 2014; however, the themes discussed continue to ring true.