Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Historical and Contextual Influences on the U.S. Response to Contemporary Homelessness. Our Evolving Homeless System of Service in the United States


In the 1980s, as homelessness was increasingly recognized by the public and governments, the federal legislation proposed  the Homeless Persons Survival Act  offered responses in the areas of emergency, preventive, and long-term approaches. When finally passed in 1987, as the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (now McKinney-Vento), only the emergency component was implemented. Under several titles, the legislation authorized the creation of programs that remain the foundation of our national response to homelessness. However, they were established in distinct departments of the executive branch, each with its own regulations, grant programs, and recipient organizations. Although the Homeless Persons Survival Act can be considered as an example of a comprehensive approach, at that time our understanding of the complexity of the population, services, and the abilities of providers was too rudimentary to have conceptualized the articulated, collaborative approaches we acknowledge today.

Much of the progress in addressing homelessness over the past two decades represents a response to our experiences addressing the multiple needs of homeless people and knowledge gained from research and evaluation efforts. Together, these have contributed to an evolving homeless system of service.[2]  This Symposium is a rare opportunity both to recognize the remarkable progress we have made without the benefit of a comprehensive, unifying approach and to question whether we can sustain momentum and achieve the goal of ending homelessness without one.

The proposed system of service has four components:

  • a population experiencing homelessness,
  • a set of actions and services that are offered to the population,
  • organizations that deliver these services, and
  • the network of funding, policies, and relationships in which these organizations operate

This evolving system of service has no legislation, explicit theory, values, or principles that define it. Homelessness services have not been guided by a cohesive or overarching theory, model, or policy, and neither the components nor the system itself have been fully realized. For our purposes, arranging our knowledge into a set of components and a system of service is a heuristic device that enables us to examine developments and suggest additional opportunities.

Vicissitudes of funding, differing approaches among federal departments, and unique territories staked out within the advocacy community have characterized the U.S. response to the contemporary wave of homelessness. The following are examples of the multiple approaches and models evident in the development of our current system:

  • the original McKinney legislation implemented primarily an emergency response (Kondratas, 1991)
  • a public health model was used in the early 1990s to address both homelessness and mental illness (Interagency Council on the Homeless [ICH], 1992), and
  • the continuum of care approach (Burt et al., 2002) was introduced in the mid 1990s by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a grant funding requirement and initially emphasized a community self-determination model. As will be noted later, HUD has subsequently used this feature to shape the responses of communities, affecting considerably its self-determination features.

Current approaches may best be viewed as based in pragmatism  trying to assist homeless people with services offered by providers who function in a network of policies and funding. This pragmatism suggests the system of service shown in Exhibit 2 below.

Exhibit 2
Four Components of Our Homeless System of Service

People experiencing homelessness

Services and treatments

receive services (housing, treatments, and supports)


delivered by providers 


working in a network of agencies, policies, and funding

Arrow pointing to the right. Arrow pointing to the right. Arrow pointing to the right.

The exhibit demonstrates that we must:

  • understand the nature of the population being served,
  • offer appropriate services delivered by capable providers, and
  • work within a network of agencies, policies, and funding that ideally present no barriers to progress.

Although there is some momentum toward agreement on what our system of service aims to achieve, we do not yet have consensus on our goals. This remains an area where additional efforts across the three government levels  local (municipal/county), state, and federal  would be helpful. For example, is the shared goal to end homelessness, end chronic homelessness, or substantially retool our efforts toward greater effectiveness? Such varying goals can be found in long-range plans offered by communities (National Alliance to End Homelessness [NAEH], 2006c).

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