Homelessness in the U.S.: Is There a Solution?

While homelessness has declined over the past three years, it's still a serious problem, especially for young adults. In two readings and discussion, students consider this problem - and one promising approach for remedying it. 


To the Teacher:

In the United States today, over 600,000 people are homeless. Certain sectors of the population, including veterans, the mentally ill, and young people are disproportionately represented in this number. While the problem of homelessness has been a daunting one, some new thinking about solutions has emerged in recent years.
One of the states that has most effectively combated homelessness is Utah. Although it is known as a politically conservative state, Utah has adopted an usually radical solution to homelessness: namely, providing free, permanent housing to all those who need it. The results of this program have been remarkable: the state has seen a 74 percent decrease in chronic homelessness, as well as taxpayer savings of about $5000 per program participant. This success has prompted other states to consider similar programs.
This lesson consists of two student readings. The first reading takes a general look at homelessness in the U.S. today. While the number of people who are homeless throughout the country has declined over the past three years, the problem remains a serious one, particularly for young adults aged 18-24. The second reading examines Utah's program to address homelessness and explores whether it points toward a solution to this persistent problem. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Student Reading 1:
Homeless in America

Over 600,000 people are homeless in the United States today. This number includes many young people (ages 18-24), as well as veterans and mentally ill people.
While the total number of homeless people in the U.S. has declined over the past three years, this trend does not hold in 23 states, including Texas, New York, and California. As NPR journalist Bill Chappell reported in a November 21, 2013 article: 

The number of homeless people in the U.S. shrank from 2012 to 2013, according to a large government study that found the number of veterans and others who are homeless declined for the third straight year. But homeless numbers rose in New York and other states, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development... TheHUD study uses data from a count conducted by U.S. shelters on a single night, in which they reported how many people were using their facilities, and how many were left without shelter...The tally found that 610,042 people were homeless on that night, reflecting a drop of nearly 4 percent from 2012 to 2013, the agency says. Of that number, 36 percent — 222,197 people — were in families, representing a drop of 7 percent for that group.

The HUD study included a number of troubling findings, including: 

  • More than a third of all homeless people (35 percent) live in abandoned buildings and cars or under bridges, the report says, and this includes children.
  • Nearly a quarter of America's homeless are under 18.
  • The largest one-year increases in homeless in 2012 were in New York (7,864 people), followed by California (5,928), South Carolina (1,629), Massachusetts (1,528), and Maine (623).

Young adults aged 18-24 make up a growing segment of the homeless population. Young people have suffered disproportionately from the economic recession that began in 2008 and from our precarious job market. As reporter Susan Saulny wrote in a December 18, 201,  New York Times article: 

Across the country, tens of thousands of underemployed and jobless young people, many with college credits or work histories, are struggling to house themselves in the wake of the recession, which has left workers between the ages of 18 and 24 with the highest unemployment rate of all adults.
Those who can move back home with their parents — the so-called boomerang set — are the lucky ones. But that is not an option for those whose families have been hit hard by the economy, including [24 year-old homeless man Duane] Taylor, whose mother is barely scraping by while working in a laundromat. Without a stable home address, they are an elusive group that mostly couch surfs or sleeps hidden away in cars or other private places, hoping to avoid the lasting stigma of public homelessness during what they hope will be a temporary predicament.
These young adults are the new face of a national homeless population, one that poverty experts and case workers say is growing. Yet the problem is mostly invisible. Most cities and states, focusing on homeless families, have not made special efforts to identify young adults, who tend to shy away from ordinary shelters out of fear of being victimized by an older, chronically homeless population....
For generations, services for the homeless were directed to two groups: dependent children and older people. There was scant attention focused on what experts now call "transitional age youth" — young adults whose needs are distinct.

Faced with the challenge of aiding a diverse and changing homeless population, advocates are looking for innovative and practical solutions that can address the immediate needs of those on the street and offer hope of a long-term solution. 

For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. According to the reading, what were some positive findings of recent HUD studies on U.S. homelessness? What were some discouraging findings?
  3. The reading cites some reasons for the increasing number of homeless youth aged 18-24.

 Ask students: What factors do you think explain the high number of homeless people in this country?  Record student responses. 
Then share with students that according to a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the main causes of homelessness include: 

  • Poverty, mostly due to low wages
  • Lack of jobs
  • Rising rents that people with low incomes can't afford
  • High utility costs

Mental health and drug problems can contribute to homelessness, but they are not the top causes.


Student Reading 2:
Housing First: Utah's Solution to Homelessness

While the problem of homelessness has been a daunting one, some new solutions may be on the horizon.
One of the states that has most effectively combated homelessness in recent years is Utah. Although it is known as a politically conservative state, Utah has adopted an usually radical solution to homelessness: namely, providing free, permanent housing to all those who need it. Even more unusual, program participants do not have to meet any requirements to be eligible, such as holding a job or passing drug tests. The only requirement for assistance is that a person be chronically homelessness.

Journalist Emmett Rensin explains the program's approach in a February 10, 2014 article for Mic

In 2005, one state defied "political feasibility" and began handing out free apartments to the homeless. These were neither temporary accommodations or shelters for the night. They were not welfare-to-work, or only if you're married, or just-take-this-drug-test: just free apartments, no strings attached. Nine years later, they've reduced long-term homelessness by 74% and are on track to eradicate it completely by 2015. Which bastion of leftist menace is responsible for such a radical experiment in welfare expansion? Is it Massachusetts? California? The Independent Republic of Portland?  No. It's Utah.... According to Housing Works, the state agency responsible for the plan, the "ten-year action plan" is a deeply progressive, multi-tier aid scheme that is being employed to provide varying levels of assistance, according to varying levels of need.., As reported by their website:  "Homeless program interventions are aimed at different segments of the homeless population: those who have the potential to become homeless (prevention); those who are experiencing crisis-induced, short-term homelessness (treatment); those who experience persistent, long-term homelessness (mitigation). Though interventions vary in the type and duration of supports, the end goal remains consistent: to stably house individuals and families to end their homelessness as quickly as possible."

Rensin reports that the "big-ticket free apartment program" mostly applies to the long-term homeless. Under Utah's system, people who are in homeless shelters are supposed to be rapidly rehoused and receive supportive services if they need them.  But others qualify for assistance too, including people who still have a place to live but are struggling to keep it, and people who are reentering the community after being in medical facilities or in prison.
Some advocates for the homeless have wondered whether there's a catch to Utah's program. They suspect that some of the program's supporters were more motivated by financial considerations than by concern for those in need. However, the financial benefits of this approach are hardly a negative. As Joseph Charlton writes in a December 22, 2013. article for The Independent:

The reasoning behind the scheme was, of course, based on projected state-saving rather than outright benevolence. Utahan number crunchers calculated the annual cost of hospital and jail time for the average homeless person was costing the state $16,670  a year while an apartment and social worker would cost just $11,000.
The numbers as well as the social benefits have been making sense ever since. Utah saves around $5000 on each rough sleeper moved indoors, and eight years on, the rate of state homelessness has dropped by a staggering 78 per cent.

The program's remarkable results have prompted other states, most notably Wyoming, to look into similar programs. As freelance writer Robin Marty explained in a December 26, 2013 article for Truthout

Now, Wyoming is thinking they will give the plan a try, too. For them, the need is drastic. "Wyoming has been going the opposite direction than Utah has: its homeless population has increased by 213 percent in the past three years," writes Kerry Drake at Wyofile. "In 2012, the state managed to provide shelter for only 26 percent of the homeless, which was the lowest rate in the country. The next state on the list, at 35 percent, was California, where the climate is obviously much more conducive to sleeping outside than ours."
The state is in the process of remodeling apartments in [the city of] Casper to prepare for the first batch of selected applicants, and after that will allow roughly a dozen to launch the pilot program. For Utah, it will take about a decade to reduce the number of chronic homeless to zero. If Wyoming follows the same trajectory, it would be in the same place around 2025.

Utah's success may point the way to further progress in the fight against homelessness. It suggests that instead of requiring preconditions before homeless people can get housing (such as drug testing or job training), state governments would have more success if they made a long-term investment in providing decent housing immediately with no strings attached.

For Discussion: 

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. According to the reading, how has Utah gone about reducing homelessness?
  3. Utah's housing program is "no-stings-attached," meaning that participants only have to meet one requirement: being homeless. What might be some benefits to such a policy? How might it affect the program's success rate?
  4. According to the reading, some of the program's supporters might be most interested in its potential financial benefits. Do you think that this is a problem? Why or why not?
  5. Do you think that homelessness is a problem that can be solved? What do you think are some of the reasons why this problem has persisted for so long?

-- Research assistance provided by Yessenia Gutierrez.