One of the most American ideals – the sanctity of home – has been imperiled for some time. With a shortage of roughly 7 million safe, decent, affordable homes, and a critical lack of services, homelessness has persisted in the United States, especially among those with the fewest resources: families living paycheck to paycheck, people of color, youth aging out of foster care, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.
The recipe for going 'all in' on ending homelessness in America
While the affordable housing shortage can be hard to see with our own eyes, homelessness is not. The unhoused are among the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 582,462 people were homeless on a given night in 2022. That figure – a slight .03% increase from 2020 – includes a significant rise among people with disabilities who are chronically homeless (16%) as well as a rise among single individuals (3.1%).
Our two organizations – Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness – are united in the belief that it doesn’t have to be this way. We believe that access to safe, decent, affordable housing should be a human right.
To this end, the 167 member agencies of the Catholic Charities network provide 1.9 million nights of emergency shelter each year. With more than 35,000 units of permanent housing owned and developed by CCUSA, it is also one of the nation’s largest affordable housing providers.
In December, USICH released “All In: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.” The plan builds on the work happening around the country and in Washington, including the American Rescue Plan that created some of the largest federal investments in ending homelessness in U.S. history. The White House’s Housing Supply Action Plan aims to close the gap between people and homes in five years. And the House America initiative has permanently housed more than 100,000 people and added more than 40,000 affordable homes into the pipeline.
USICH and CCUSA recognize the urgency of this crisis, which is why “All In” lays out an ambitious roadmap for reducing homelessness 25% by 2025. We know this goal demands a vigorous national effort based on the “Housing First” model that offers housing and services as the first in a series of steps to keep a person housed. Instead of shutting our doors to people struggling with sobriety, we should offer them a safe, warm place to live and provide substance use treatment in the context of that housing. Instead of turning away people with no job, we should offer them job training and a home. Instead of rejecting people with criminal records, we should offer them housing and a second chance.
A Catholic Charities five-year pilot project, the Healthy Housing Initiative, follows this Housing First model and is currently underway in Detroit; Las Vegas; Portland, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; and St. Louis. It provides housing and supportive, wraparound services – for physical, mental and social problems – to address long-term, chronic homelessness. The initiative is keeping people out of emergency rooms, thereby saving not only lives but also taxpayer funding. Preliminary data shows the initiative has reduced emergency room use and hospitalizations – outcomes that CCUSA believe have resulted in savings of at least a half-million dollars for the health system.
With “All In,” and in partnership with the whole community, we can seize this opportunity to provide rental assistance to people struggling to pay rent, use Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to develop more affordable housing with wraparound supports, build and preserve homes for low-income and marginalized people through the National Housing Trust Fund, and preserve the nation’s public housing stock that faces a backlog of more than $70 billion in unmet repairs.
Although housing is the immediate solution to homelessness, prevention is the other half of the equation. In the United States, the number of people who get out of shelters and tents and into housing every year is roughly the same as the number who lose their housing and become homeless. “All In” goes further than any other federal effort to prevent homelessness before it starts.
To prevent and end homelessness, we need communities of health professionals, social workers, businesses, people of faith, business leaders and governments at every level working together to help people who are struggling. No community – urban, suburban, rural or tribal – is unaffected by this crisis. We are all responsible, and we must listen to the real experts: people who have experienced the tragedy of homelessness. We must truly see the unhoused – not grow accustomed to passing them by without seeing their full humanity.
Jeff Olivet is the executive director of USICH. Sister Donna Markham, an Adrian Dominican sister, is president of Catholic Charities USA.
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