Homelessness is a deadly and preventable public health crisis. People with pre-existing medical conditions are at greater risk of homelessness, and on average, homeless people die decades earlier than those who are housed. The state of homelessness itself is the constant suffering of hunger, extreme weather and treatable diseases.
Every day in the United States, approximately 2,500 Americans escape homelessness and move into homes where they can rebuild their lives. But for every person who leaves homelessness, another enters a traumatic experience that affects more than a million people in the United States each year. Until we close this revolving door and prevent people from losing their homes in the first place, we cannot end homelessness.
Prevention is a critical part of the Biden-Harris administration’s homelessness strategy, but keeping people in their homes and out of courts and eviction shelters and off the streets requires the collective power of state, local and federal policymakers, as well as faith communities, the business sector and philanthropy. Homelessness is a multi-system failure that requires multiple systems to work together on a common remedy: a country where everyone has a safe and affordable home.
To eradicate homelessness, we must close the doors to homelessness the doors to the criminal justice system that return people to society without housing; from foster care systems that fail to set children up for success as they grow older; from health systems that let people into homelessness; and from housing systems that do not build or preserve enough homes that working people can afford.
The pandemic has shown us the power of prevention. When COVID-19 hit, Congress, states and communities banned evictions, earmarked emergency rental assistance funding, expanded unemployment insurance and the child tax credit, and distributed temporary cash assistance to low- and moderate-income Americans. This policy prevented millions of evictions, cut poverty in half, and prevented what would otherwise have been a huge increase in homelessness.
These successes have informed some promising local efforts to end homelessness. Santa Clara County, California, for example, has something few communities have but all need: a comprehensive, well-designed homelessness prevention system. With the help of more than a dozen nonprofit organizations, the system offers temporary financial assistance, legal aid and other services to low-income people who are at risk of losing their homes. According to a recent study by Notre Dame researchers, people offered temporary financial assistance were 81 percent less likely to experience homelessness within six months and 73 percent less likely within 12 months of enrolling in Santa Clara County’s homelessness prevention system. Prevention also literally pays off: The study found that for every dollar spent on temporary financial assistance, the community gets $2.47 back in benefits.
Santa Clara County isn’t the only place taking prevention seriously. We’re seeing other cities and states across the nation from Birmingham, Ala., to the state of Connecticut increasingly focus on homelessness prevention.
Homelessness is a political choice. We have the power to prevent and end it. In a country where people in need outnumber affordable homes and housing shortages are one of the biggest causes of homelessness, the Biden administration is working with communities to expand the supply of housing, and is on track to build more housing this year than any other. . recorded.
Local and state governments, meanwhile, have the power to expand not only housing, but also health care, employment programs, mental health and substance use treatment, education and other supports that help prevent people from losing their homes. Businesses and philanthropy have the power to match that funding with money that can be used more flexibly and creatively. Faith communities and other civic groups can contribute their time, talents, land, and facilities to work to prevent and end homelessness. Only when we all come together in a common direction can we achieve the goal of preventing and ending homelessness.
Jeff Olivet is the director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. Susan Ellenberg is the chairwoman of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
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