What the research says about the best way to spend money now to solve long-term homelessness


Op-ed: We have a lot of data on what works to end homelessness. Now we have to get to work.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions has put millions of people at risk of housing instability and homelessness. If households are unable to receive emergency rental assistance on time, many could join the nearly 600,000 people who experienced homelessness on any given night in the United States before the pandemic. To reverse the growing trend of homelessness, people facing housing instability need effective, evidence-based solutions. Fortunately, decades of rigorous research have shown practitioners and policy makers what can work. And right now, the influx of relief funds offers an opportunity to finally expand these evidence-based programs, but those dollars must be spent quickly. To truly end homelessness, states and cities must both develop effective short-term solutions and conduct additional research to build sustainable long-term stability.

“Housing instability” is a term that encompasses both homelessness and factors that increase the risk of homelessness, such as couch-surfing and eviction. Expelled people move more frequently, making it more difficult to maintain stable employment, loosen bonds with the community and, for the 1.3 million students who experienced homelessness during the school year 2018-19, interrupts education.

Homelessness and housing instability disproportionately affect black people, members of the LGBTQ community, people with severe mental illness, veterans, survivors of domestic violence and several other marginalized communities. And that was before the pandemic and the impending eviction cliff.

Fortunately, there is already strong evidence for many effective strategies to end homelessness. At J-PAL North America, a research organization based in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we work with researchers and policymakers to conduct rigorous random assessments of the policies that really lift people out of poverty.

For example, research has shown that subsidizing rent through the Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly known as Section 8, can reduce homelessness. Voucher holders have a lower incidence of homelessness and an increased likelihood of living in stable accommodation. The right ones have also been shown to help beyond just putting a roof over someone’s head. They decrease family separation and psychological distress, and increase school attendance and food security. Additional research by J-PAL researchers has shown that providing comprehensive mobility services and improving access to neighborhood information in conjunction with vouchers can increase their positive impacts. But only 25 percent of eligible households can receive vouchers due to insufficient funding, and applicants spend years on waiting lists. (President Biden offered an additional $ 5 billion for the Housing Choice Voucher program, which would help another 200,000 eligible families.)

Randomized evaluations have shown the effectiveness of Housing First. For decades, most housing services required people to meet employment or sobriety conditions in order to be housed. Housing First programs literally do what they say: provide Housing First, with no preconditions.

Several randomized evaluations have tested Housing First programs and found that people living in permanent supportive housing spend about half the time without housing or in hospital than those who are not in the program. Utah policymakers then used this research to expand the evidence-based agenda. The state became a national model after adopting a Housing First approach in 2005 and reducing chronic homelessness by 91% by 2015.

There is still a lot to learn about how to end homelessness, and rigorous randomized evaluations can help. First, further research may provide information on how to improve programs that we know can work. For example, despite the success of coupons, they are not just a “golden ticket”. It is difficult to get a voucher and then find owners who accept such vouchers, even when discrimination on the basis of “source of income” is technically illegal. The low housing stock and discriminatory practices make finding housing difficult, if not impossible, for voucher holders. We need more research on ways to increase owner acceptance of vouchers.

Second, randomized evaluations can be used to identify additional evidence-based strategies. While the moratoriums on evictions have offered short-term solutions, researchers are exploring potential long-term solutions. Many studies are underway on the provision of emergency financial assistance and legal support services to people threatened with eviction.

The work to end homelessness takes a lot of money. The US Department of the Treasury encourages states and communities to use federal relief funds for evidence-based interventions and assessments “designed to build evidence.” However, US bailout funds are time-limited and must be spent by the end of 2024. By spending these funds both on evidence-based programs like Housing First and generating assessments evidence, stakeholders can simultaneously meet immediate needs and promote housing stability in the decades to come.

Rohit Naimpally is Senior Director of Research and Policy at J-PAL North America, where he works with governments, nonprofits, foundations and private companies to develop rigorous evidence on policies and programs. that have an impact on poverty.

Laina Sonterblum is political associate at J-PAL North America. It supports the development and implementation of randomized evaluations and synthesizes research results to promote evidence-based social programs and policies.


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