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What Can Cities Do to Help People Without Homes During the Holiday Season?

Urban Institute’s resource toolkit helps cities address homelessness during the challenge of COVID-19.

homeless christmas
The number of unsheltered people has risen this year amid the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Peter Summers/Getty Images)

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Americans experiencing homelessness was on the rise. According to a recent report from the Urban Institute, on any given night in 2019 more than 560,000 people had no permanent place to live, including 211,000 people who were considered unsheltered,” meaning that they were forced to sleep outside, in a car, or another location unsuited for human habitation. (The rest were housed in shelters or other temporary accommodations.) 

After declining from 2009 to 2015, unsheltered homelessness rose 22 percent between 2015 and 2019, largely as a result of the skyrocketing housing costs in major American cities. Just 14 urban areas, mostly on the West and East Coast, accounted for 83 percent of the increase in homelessness in those years.


Number of people who had no permanent place to live on any given night in 2019

The coronavirus outbreak has posed a particular threat to America’s homeless population, which already suffer from poor health and are often packed into tent cities” or other non-socially-distanced living arrangements. For this reason, the federal CARES Act allocated $4 billion to shelter the homeless nationwide, in addition to the $150 billion in direct assistance to municipalities. Many cities used the money to temporarily house people experiencing homelessness in motels and hotels. But with the Dec. 31 deadline approaching for cities to spend CARES Act money, some local officials have announced plans to evict people experiencing homelessness from hotels and put them back on the streets — just when the pandemic is at its height. 

Fortunately, there’s a better solution. With support from Arnold Ventures, the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center has compiled a resource toolkit for cities seeking a more permanent solution to the homelessness crisis. 

One positive from the pandemic is that communities across the country increased use of motels and hotels to get people in temporary housing, which is a good development,” said Sarah Gillespie, the policy center’s Research Director. But at the same time, congregate shelters really decreased their capacity in order to keep people safe, so overall we didn’t see the capacity of the homeless service system increase — in some places it even decreased overall.” 

Housing First’ Model

Rather than shuttling people experiencing homelessness from one temporary shelter to another, research shows that providing permanent housing to people experiencing chronic homelessness is cheaper and produces better outcomes. While many transitional” shelters impose requirements on their residents — drug and alcohol tests, curfews, pet bans etc. — the housing first” model favored by homeless advocates recognizes that underlying mental health and substance use disorders can’t be treated until people have a roof over their heads. Denver, for instance, has found success with its Permanent Supportive Housing initiative, which provides wraparound social services to its residents. 

With transitional housing, prior research found that either people didn’t enter the programs at all because the barriers were too high, or they entered the program and then returned to homelessness,” Gillespie said. Housing has to happen first, and then you can have service providers who work with residents to establish what their goals are and what they need.”

Evaluations of housing-first programs like the one in Denver show higher housing retention rates than in short-term transitional shelters. 

Not only is the housing-first model more effective, it also ends up saving cities money. People in permanent supportive housing are less likely to be arrested or need emergency medical care than people living on the streets, who often get caught in a vicious cycle of jail and homelessness. In many cities, just sleeping outside, eating outside, using the bathroom outside can be misdemeanors or worse,” Gillespie said. That’s why they come into so much contact with the police.” A criminal record debars many people from employment, making them more likely to reoffend. 

The Only Known Cure for Homelessness’

Florida police officer Daniel McDonald, who specializes in working with people experiencing homelessness, said that jailing people is the wrong approach — and extremely costly. The most prolific offender in Hillsborough County [home to Tampa] is a guy named Billy,” McDonald said. He’s been arrested about 200 times and he’s spent 10 years in the county jail, but he’s never committed a felony. He’s cost the system, I would estimate, between half a million and a million dollars. He commits minor crimes, but he’s not a bank robber or anything.” Breaking the jail to homelessness cycle requires cities to make an upfront investment in housing, but McDonald believes the long-term cost savings are worth it. 

Over the past few years, the growing homeless population in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York has attracted the attention of politicians like Donald Trump, who have criticized local leaders for not sending in the police.

There is this narrative coming out of the current White House Administration promoting punitive responses to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” said Nikki Smith-Kea, Criminal Justice Manager at Arnold Ventures. We see an opportunity to help jurisdictions better respond to this population and are hoping to see a change in response, using a more human-centered approach, with the new Administration.”

Whatever other challenges people experiencing unsheltered homelessness might be facing — mental health problems, substance use disorder, cycling in and out of the criminal justice system — the answer starts with putting a roof over their heads, McDonald said: Housing is the only known cure for homelessness.”