Viewpoints

Intervening early is the best way to reduce chronic homelessness

By Kevin Ebi, Smart Cities Council

Despite the fact that most states invested more last year in low-income housing, the U.S. homeless population climbed for the first time this decade. More troubling: More than a third of the homeless are unsheltered. They’re literally living on the streets. That’s even with the strongest job market in 16 years.

What can cities do? The temptation is to focus exclusively on chronic homelessness, since it’s painfully visible. But new research suggests that cities may produce a much stronger impact by paying more attention to the newly homeless as well.

A new Economic Roundtable report that examined Los Angeles County’s homeless situation suggests that getting just 10 percent of the newly homeless back on their feet more quickly could cut the chronic homeless rate in half. But cities have to act fast.


Why early intervention is so important
Simply put, the longer someone has been homeless, the more help they typically need. Someone who is newly homeless may only need help with transportation or childcare so that they can find a job. Failing to get that help may cause them to lose out on opportunities, placing them in a deeper financial hole that’s harder to escape.

We also tend to significantly underestimate the size of the short-term homeless population. While the word “homeless” triggers visions of people who’ve been on the streets for years, in Los Angeles, nearly half of those who were homeless in a given year were homeless for less than a month.

And for a very large segment of the population, they’re homeless because they lost their jobs. Forty percent cited money troubles as the reason they’re homeless — more than double the number who cited any other reason. (Family conflicts accounted for 19 percent, drug and alcohol abuse 17 percent and mental illness 13 percent.)


It’s not either-or
While the newly homeless population is large, the report authors caution that it’s critical not to divert resources from the chronically homeless to serve them. Rather, they suggest that cities need to see both as separate groups of individuals who need different types of help.

The report also offered suggestions for helping the chronically homeless. Jobs, of course, are key. It found that in many cases, offering employment subsidies can deliver substantial results. The employment subsidies — even if provided long-term — can eliminate the need for much more costly permanent housing subsidies.

 

Kevin Ebi is the Global Managing Editor of the Smart Cities Council, which helps cities become more livable, workable and sustainable. Register for the Council’s Smart Cities Week, October 2-4, in Washington, D.C.

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