Homelessness: A View from the United States

Nan Roman from the US National Alliance to End Homelessness was a very welcome guest at the CHA IMPACT Conference 2017. She talked about the US efforts to cut homelessness and the relevancy to New Zealand today. Jan Rivers summarises her presentation.

Nan Roman starts by explaining to conference delegates that the US Alliance to End Homelessness is not the lead body for working with homelessness but rather an organisation that carries out data collection and research; provides public education, policy and advocacy on homelessness; and helps communities implement homelessness reduction programs.

The organisation seeks to be a trusted partner of local, state and federal government, as well as the advocacy and philanthropy sector. It has no equivalent in New Zealand.

The USA is not a welfare state. And there are no rights to social assistance or to meet human needs.

“The USA is not a welfare state,” says Nan. “And there are no rights to social assistance or to meet human needs (except for the elderly and disabled) and what is provided is inadequate.”

There is no explicit right to housing in the United States and the definition for homelessness is, quite literally, “a lack of shelter”. This is in contrast to New Zealand definitions where being in temporary accommodation, having no security, sharing accommodation and residing in uninhabitable housing are all included in the definition of homelessness.

In the United States, 565,000 people may lack shelter on any given night and, over the course of a year, some 1.5 million people are homeless for a period.

Scale is an issue too. In the United States, 565,000 people may lack shelter on any given night and, over the course of a year, some 1.5 million people are homeless for a period.

Nan discusses the levels of success the US Strategic Action Plan on Homelessness had between 2009 and 2015 where – despite rising rents, a tighter rental market and a rising population – rates of homelessness in the US had fallen by 10 percent overall and by 13 percent for homeless families.

Having compared the NZ and US situations, she discovers, despite New Zealand’s more liberal interpretation of homelessness, Auckland’s rough sleeper population has still been recorded at 228 people in the CBD. This is the equivalent to Philadelphia, a city of similar size in the US, where there 225 rough sleepers were counted in the central city.

Given the additional tools NZ has in its intervention toolbox – such as welfare payments, state and social housing – this close alignment in unsheltered people could be considered somewhat alarming.

Nan describes the effective lobbying that moved the USA from a situation where there was little reliable homelessness data to one where there are now two datasets.

One of these datasets is the Point-in-Time Counts[i], a bi-annual community-by-community count that is tied to qualification for federal funding for homeless assistance. She details the reasons for the Unites States’ relative success, and it is through this detailing that the differences between the NZ and US situations becomes apparent.

The starting point, though, was the availability of reliable data around which a plan could be structured, and which has allowed for the creation of all the other elements of a strategy. The US Strategic Action Plan on Homelessness also includes:

  • An objective for ending homelessness;
    • A nationally agreed strategy;
    • Clear national and local goals;
    • A sense of urgency;
    • Policy tools and approaches;
    • The collection of data on what works best; and
    • The ability to change direction, however difficult, when approaches are not working.

Sub-elements of the strategy includes the development of agreed approaches and pathways for working with homelessness.

A housing-first approach means other issues – such as drug and alcohol abuse or indebtedness – are not hindrances to being housed. Nan makes the point that interim and staged options for homeless people carry their own costs, and that putting homeless families into emergency accommodation simply dislocates them from their schools and communities, adding expense, time and further disruption to the rehousing.

The reason for positive results appears to be, as well as the plan, a broad buy-in to solving the homelessness crisis in the United States from federal, state and local governments, as well as NGOs.

Nan Roman’s presentation provided many pointers as to what a New Zealand national homelessness strategy could contain.

[i] Point in Time Counts on https://endhomelessness.org/

Jan Rivers has worked in libraries and public policy and is active on social justice issues in New Zealand. She has written on topics related to democracy, politics, open government and the public good.  She is a trustee of the Scoop Foundation, which owns independent New Zealand news website Scoop Publishing, and raises funds for public interest journalism. She is also on the board of the St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society.