Responding to homelessness in the United States is a particular challenge because of the level of poverty in the country, the dramatic gap between rich and poor, and the structure of its welfare state. The evolution of the development of the American response to homelessness has gone through several stages.
In the 1970s, the housing and homelessness problem was becoming more acute. One of the earliest government actions on homelessness, was the passing of the U.S. Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which included a housing voucher program most commonly referred to now as “Section 8”. The voucher system was arguably an American solution to the affordable housing problem, by providing targeted support to certain low-income groups to allow them to compete in the private market for rental accommodation. This program still exists today as a cornerstone approach to American affordable housing.
The homelessness problem in the US – as opposed to the housing problem – began to generate an official government response in the 1980s (with the McKinney-Vento Act, 1987) and featured a rapid expansion of emergency services for people who are homeless. In this phase, there was a focus on building the emergency service infrastructure.
By the year 2000, there was a shift, characterized by the introduction of the Strategic Response, with an emphasis not just on emergency services, but on transitions to housing. This was the phase that the 10 Year Plan model began to take hold, first articulated in the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ “A Plan Not a Dream How to End Homelessness in Ten Years”. This approach, put forward by the NAEH and supported by the US government with funding through several programs was to spread throughout the States. Here, the focus was on implementing measureable targets and outcomes, and the United States was ahead of the other countries in developing “homeless management information systems” (HMIS), that is, standardized data collection and analysis in the sector, in order to measure the extent of the problem and the effectiveness of solutions in a consistent way.
The priority population of this first phase of 10 year plans was the chronically homeless. At the same time, and supported by the 10 Year Plan model, was an endorsement of the Housing First approach, which represented a paradigm shift in the approach to emergency services, away from the notion that people with mental health or addictions issues needed to be supported by the homelessness sector before they were ‘ready’ for housing.
Following the recession of 2008-2009, the US government outlined a series of measures to address the issue including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009), which included funding for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program. Here they targeted support for early intervention and prevention services for homeless youth. They also outline a research-based theoretical framework to justify this direction, (which is outlined verbatim, below) in order to assist communities in developing youth homelessness prevention and re-housing services:
United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH)
A key feature of the American response to homelessness has been the establishment of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), which is an independent agency of the Federal government (executive branch, meaning it reports to the President). Composed of 19 Cabinet secretaries and agency heads, USICH is designed to integrate and coordinate a homelessness response in partnership with state and local governments, and community groups. With an annual budget of $2,680,000 (2011) the mission of USICH is to:
Coordinate the federal response to homelessness and to create a national partnership at every level of government and with the private sector to reduce and end homelessness in the nation while maximizing the effectiveness of the Federal Government in contributing to the end of homelessness.
The annual budget of USICH in 2012 was $3,300,000.
In 2010,USICH released the first federal strategic plan to end homelessness, ““Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness 2010”. The key themes of the strategy included:
INCREASE LEADERSHIP, COLLABORATION, and CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Objective 1: Provide and promote collaborative leadership at all levels of government and across all sectors to inspire and energize Americans to commit to preventing and ending homelessness
Objective 2: Strengthen the capacity of public and private organizations by increasing knowledge about collaboration, homelessness, and successful interventions to prevent and end homelessness
INCREASE ACCESS TO STABLE AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Objective 3: Provide affordable housing to people experiencing or most at risk of homelessness
Objective 4: Provide permanent supportive housing to prevent and end chronic homelessness
INCREASE ECONOMIC SECURITY
Objective 5: Increase meaningful and sustainable employment for people experiencing or most at risk of homelessness
Objective 6: Improve access to mainstream programs and services to reduce people’s financial vulnerability to homelessness
IMPROVE HEALTH AND STABILITY
Objective 7: Integrate primary and behavioral health care services with homeless assistance programs and housing to reduce people’s vulnerability to and the impacts of homelessness
Objective 8: Advance health and housing stability for youth aging out of systems such as foster care and juvenile justice
Objective 9: Advance health and housing stability for people experiencing homelessness who have frequent contact with hospitals and criminal justice
RETOOL THE HOMELESS CRISIS RESPONSE SYSTEM
Objective 10: Transform homeless services to crisis response systems that prevent homelessness and rapidly return people who experience homelessness to stable housing
A New Focus on Prevention and Rapid Rehousing
The new “Opening Doors” plan builds on the previous plans, but rather than emphasize the needs of chronic homelessness, there was a recognition of the need to shift the focus to prevention, and this is in fact reflected in the title of the report. A preventive focus means putting in place strategies to s stop people from becoming homeless in the first place, as well as prioritizing the strategy of Rapid Rehousing, meaning working to get people into housing as soon as possible once they fall into homelessness. The plan also attempts to reorient the whole emergency services sector, so that they are rewarded for both preventing homelessness and moving people INTO housing as soon as possible, not for filling beds in shelters.
Researcher Dennis Culhane and his colleagues, in an excellent document titled “A Prevention-Centered Approach to Homelessness Assistance” outlines the framework and evidence-base for this rather dramatic paradigm shift in the American response to homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has also produced a range of documents to support the transition to a preventive approach, and to help communities implement the new strategy.