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Food is served at at Philadelphia's Broad Street Ministry, which serves thousands of free meals five days per week while also providing homeless people with a mail center, a clothes mending facility, counseling and medical screenings. The city's unsheltered population increased significantly from 2014 to 2019. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Research & Results: Nine U.S. Localities Offer Human-Centered Approaches to Unsheltered Homelessness

A new series of issue briefs and documents offer evidence-based guidance and best practices, addressing the harm of punitive policies, management of public spaces, and low-barrier solutions.

Stark spikes in levels of unsheltered homelessness in various cities and regions across the country have brought newfound attention — and politicization — to the issue. In response to this growing crisis, communities are struggling to craft policies that serve the needs of people experiencing homelessness while also addressing the concerns of residents and businesses.

With the debate being elevated from local governments to the White House, what is needed is an increased understanding and adoption of evidence-based and promising practices for responding to those experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

All too often, local leaders are willing to accept solutions that merely move the issue out of public view rather than truly help unsheltered people make lasting exits out of homelessness. That’s why it is critical for lawmakers, advocates, and others on the front lines of addressing unsheltered homelessness to pursue policies and interventions that are driven by data, backed by evidence, centered on people, and aimed at effective and sustainable outcomes.

Barbara Poppe and Stephen Metraux, with support from Arnold Ventures, have published a series of issue briefs and documents based on their study of nine sites across the country.

These localities, through responses tailored to their specific contexts, have all taken measures that aspire to be non-punitive and reduce harm, while effectively working toward moving people out of unsheltered homelessness and into permanent housing with (when necessary) supportive services. Taken together with a literature review and consultation with national experts, these documents offer three key, overarching themes that guide best practices.

1. Punitive policies do lots of harm, and little good

Policies that coerce people experiencing homelessness through threats of fines or arrests cause negative consequences for individuals and make it more difficult to move people into permanent housing solutions. Punitive responses paint an inaccurate narrative that homelessness is a crime, isolate people from society, undermine social expectations, disrupt lives, cause job loss, exacerbate trauma, and lead to criminal justice consequences that make it more difficult to find employment or housing.

The Poppe and Metraux documents elevate local initiatives that provide more humane alternatives based on practices shown to work, including partnering police and homeless services, reducing barriers to moving from unsheltered locations to permanent housing, and providing services and facilities that meet people where they are at.”

2. Effective management of public spaces must aim to accommodate everyone

    Conflict often arises in public spaces where people experiencing unsheltered homelessness interact with others in the community. Encampments, vehicles as living facilities, and panhandling are three typical focal points for conflict that lead businesses and residents to react negatively. Instead of punishing or prohibiting these behaviors, inclusive management practices aim to find ways that balance the needs of all interests while offering everyone the opportunity to use public spaces harmoniously.

    3. Approaches that work are oriented toward low-barrier solutions, with a specific emphasis on getting people into housing

      The quickest way to get people from streets to homes” is to adopt a Housing First framework without preconditions. This means having temporary shelters that meet people where they are without limits on length of stay or mandatory programs, rapid rehousing with rental assistance, permanent supportive housing, and diversion programs that can help connect people to informal living arrangements with family and friends. Effective outreach is critical to locating, engaging, and building relationships and trust among people in unsheltered situations, first responders including law enforcement, and service providers. 

      A meal is served at the Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

      Locations studied

      Best practices are applied differently from site to site. Urban centers, suburban towns, and rural areas can all craft successful policy responses to help people experiencing homelessness by focusing on their specific needs and opportunities.

      For example, some major urban centers use transit-based outreach to help connect people experiencing homelessness with appropriate resources. In Philadelphia, an abandoned police station in a subway concourse was transformed into a Hub of Hope,” a low-barrier engagement center that connects people with housing and services and also provides meals, laundry, and a safe space. In Minnesotas Twin Cities area, the Metro Transit’s police department established a Homeless Action Team that patrols trains at night as part of a Housing First outreach effort.

      Using law enforcement as part of a human-centered response, rather than a punitive one, has found success in many places. Wichita, Kansas, created a Homeless Outreach Team dedicated solely to homeless matters, which works in partnership with homeless service providers and businesses to refer persons experiencing homelessness to other resources and programs. Syracuse, New York, deployed the community 211 line that residents could call instead of 911 to deploy outreach staff to situations that require services instead of force. These serve as critical steps to reducing the likelihood of homelessness being criminalized.

      Many cities have specifically grappled with housing shortages. New Orleans responded to a spike in unsheltered homelessness after Hurricane Katrina with a significant increase in permanent supportive housing. Santa Barbara, Calif., which has some of the nation’s highest housing costs, established a Safe Parking Program that provides places for people to sleep in their vehicles overnight while also connecting with casework services that help participants find more permanent housing.

      Cities also find solutions by removing barriers between governments and geographic locations, and by building bridges between the public and private sector. Portland, Oregon realized that homelessness didn’t end at city limits and partnered with Multnomah County to establish a Joint Office of Homeless Services. The office facilitates strategic conversations between the city and the county, and with federal and state agencies. Rockford, Illinois created a goal of ending all homelessness within the small city and continues to work toward that end by engaging a network of strong community nonprofit organizations. Rural Southwest Minnesota functionally ended chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness through their Continuum of Care that connects counties, cities, youth services, crisis response and housing placement across a vast geographic area.

      Poppe and Metraux, in profiling these sites, found seven key strategies that provided bases for their responses to unsheltered homelessness:

      1. Foster collaboration across sectors with a full range of partners
      2. Use data to inform policy and practices
      3. Provide training on engaging with those living unsheltered
      4. Increase services capacity and have sufficient housing available using a Housing First approach
      5. Promote non-punitive, low-barrier practices within the homeless assistance system
      6. Communicate about what is working and adapt evidence base and promising practices
      7. Maintain strong outreach services

      People on the front lines, such as health care providers, law enforcement, providers of homeless services and local leaders, specifically have a critical role to play in any effort to build human-centered solutions to homelessness.

      As more cities try to help residents experiencing unsheltered homelessness, these reports can offer examples of best practices already put into place and accelerate a shift in the way our nation thinks about homelessness.