Our mission is to serve as a resource for policy leaders, business owners, and neighborhood organizations trying to meaningfully reduce homelessness and to help those suffering realize their full human potential. Below are short answers to some common questions about homelessness and related policy. To learn more about the root causes of homelessness and real solutions to address them, be sure to check out our national report, case studies, and legal guide.
Are there different homelessness cohorts?
The life circumstances and paths that lead to homelessness vary greatly. Some people experience homelessness for a short period of time and others experience “chronic homelessness.” Reasonable policy should offer different recovery pathways for different experiences of homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) groups individuals experiencing homelessness based on the type of housing they are living in:
- Unsheltered – also known as street-level homelessness,
- Emergency Shelters – such as rescue missions or Salvation Army centers,
- Transitional Housing – subsidized apartments with wraparound services for up to two years,
- Rapid Rehousing – the most radical form of subsidized “Housing First” units that have no participation requirements,
- Permanent Supportive Housing – subsidized lease-based housing units, typically supported by vouchers.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education tracks child and youth homelessness. The department groups children experiencing homelessness into five cohorts depending on where they are living:
- Motels and Hotels,
- Shelters and Transitional Housing,
- Staying with Others, and
- Location Not Reported.
Is homelessness primarily a housing problem?
For most people experiencing homelessness is not fundamentally a housing problem. Instead, it is a symptom of relational, mental, and physical distress and brokenness. Studies show that for over 50% of individuals experiencing homelessness, substance use disorders or mental illness (often combined) contributes to their homelessness. Isolating people who suffer from addiction or mental illness alone in free, government-supplied housing just moves trauma from the streets into apartments. Addiction is extremely powerful and requires intervention to address. People in the midst of addiction are rarely capable of choosing recovery for themselves.
What is “Housing First” policy?
The policy maintains that homelessness is fundamentally a housing issue that can be addressed by building additional housing. Proponents insist that housing is the main barrier to addiction and mental illness treatment, and that if individuals are provided with housing through taxpayer-funded housing vouchers, they will then be able to choose and focus on recovery for themselves. Per HUD and Housing First philosophy, treatment and program participation requirements cannot be mandatory. Housing First policy was formally adopted by the Federal Government under the Obama Administration in 2013.
Does “Housing First” work?
Housing First policies have failed dismally. Unsheltered homelessness rose by 20.5% in the first five years following the implementation of Housing First. During the same period, housing vouchers increased by 42.7%. If Housing First worked, such an increase in vouchers would lead to a decrease in homelessness, not a significant increase. In 2016, California passed a bill requiring all state spending on homelessness to be Housing First. In the following four years, homelessness increased by 47.1%.
What is a CoC?
A Continuum of Care (CoC) is a local body tasked with coordinating housing and homelessness services. HUD established the Continuum of Care program to coordinate federal funding of programs related to emergency services, transitional housing, and long-term housing to address homelessness. When the Federal government adopted housing first, HUD moved to defund emergency services and transitional housing in favor of housing first vouchers. The current commitment to Housing First has resulted in the de-funding of organizations providing critical emergency services.
What is the IMD Exclusion?
Institutions for Mental Disease (IMDs) include psychiatric hospitals and any other residential treatment facility. Because of the IMD Exclusion, federal law prohibits the use of Medicaid funding for IMDs with more than 16 beds. Due to the exclusion, many mentally ill people, especially people between the ages of 21 and 64, do not receive treatment.
What solutions actually work?
Policies that acknowledge and address the root causes of homelessness work. When individuals are held accountable for their actions and strongly incentivized to get treatment, they are empowered to exit the cycle of chronic homelessness. Discovery Institute put forward 10 policy actions to address homelessness in our National Report including eliminating Housing First as the federal standard, redirecting CoC funding towards treatment services, eliminating the IMD exclusion, and having treatment and program participation requirements included in federally-funded homelessness programs.
Is mandatory treatment an unfair requirement?
Advocates of Housing First reject requirements such as drug treatment or job training in order to maintain supportive housing, or even to be released from jail, as paternalistic. Many federally funded social welfare programs have program participation requirements (e.g., PELL Grants, TANIF and Unemployment Benefits). People who have experienced homelessness and addiction often express that they neededto be held accountable by others in order to get out of the cycle of addiction. Choosing to detox from drug use is rarely a choice that someone in the throes of addiction is able to make. A society that shows compassion towards people who suffer from suicidality or eating disorders by intervening on their behalf should do the same for people suffering from addiction. Isolating a drug user alone in an apartment with no community and no accountability is not compassionate, but a dangerous recipe for continued suffering or even death.
What is harm reduction?
Harm reduction is a philosophy of drug use that emphasizes the present safety over the future recovery of the user. While reducing the harm posed by drug use is important, it cannot come at the cost of recovery. Proponents of harm reduction support so-called “safe injection sites,” where drug users can receive clean supplies and be monitored in case of overdose. Without intervention and pathways into robust treatment and recovery programs, harm reduction is nothing but a perpetuation of harm. Likewise, “safe injection sites” become havens for the continuation of addiction.
How should we address addiction?
The decriminalization of hard drugs in major cities like Seattle is correlated with unprecedented spikes in overdose fatalities. The first step to addressing addiction is to curtail the distribution and possession of opioids and other addictive substances. Mandating treatment for participation in programs and services such as housing is an important way to get treatment for those who need it most. Discovery Institute is part of the North America Recovers coalition, which is aimed at promoting drug treatment, not enablement, for the full restoration of human lives.
Is there any effective federal legislation to address homelessness?
The Housing PLUS Act, sponsored by Representative Andy Barr, would prohibit HUD from restricting CoC funds to providers that have participation requirements like addiction or mental health treatment. In Discovery Institute’s National Report, we recommend a provision to the act to require at least 40% of CoC funds be directed towards wraparound services.
What can I do to effectively help homeless people in my community?
People experiencing homelessness often admit that there is no shortage of free food and supplies made available to them. But people experiencing unsheltered homelessness have likely experienced significant trauma, and what they really want, and need, are resources to address the underlying causes and circumstances of their homelessness. Therefore, we encourage everyone to know and recommend high quality local service providers that focus on holistic restoration of those in need, including substance use and mental health treatment. Be informed about the laws and policies that can help or hurt homeless people living in your region by reading our National Report, legal guide, and case studies.