A well-documented shortage of affordable housing for the poorest American households those with incomes below 30 percent of area median income, or roughly the poverty level contributes to the flow of people into homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developments (HUD) worst case needs reports show that there are millions of families and individuals homelessness who have low incomes, have no public subsidy to help them with their housing costs, and are paying more than half their incomes for rent (HUD 2005). Quigley and colleagues have shown that increases in over the past two decades are largely the result of increasing income inequality and a related increase in demand for low-cost housing (Quigley& Raphael, 2000; Mansur et al., 2002). Recent U.S. Census data cited by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicate that more than 8 million households with incomes below 80 percent of the local median pay more than 50 percent of their incomes for rent. The number of such rent-burdened households has increased by 33 percent since 2000. For some families and individuals, a severe rent burden is a temporary situation related to a short-term loss of income, but for many others it represents an untenable situation that can end in homelessness.
A recent Welfare-to-Work study evaluated the Housing Choice Voucher Program, the largest mainstream rental housing subsidy program, randomly assigning some welfare families to receive housing assistance and others to a control group that did not receive assistance. Among those not using housing assistance, 12.5 percent reported that they had been literally homeless during the previous 12 months that is, living on the streets or in a shelter and 45 percent reported that they had at some point during the year been living temporarily with relatives or friends (Mills et al., 2006).
Regardless of the path taken to homelessness, the ultimate goal for every homeless individual and family is safe, affordable, and permanent housing. A system of housing and services for people experiencing homelessness has evolved to place people who become homeless into permanent supportive housing, to provide temporary emergency shelter to people who are homeless, and to provide time-limited housing to help people make the transition from homelessness to permanent housing. Services may include case management, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, or employment support to help them find and retain housing.
The topic of this paper is the various housing and service models that comprise programs for homeless people. At the same time, mainstream housing assistance programs have at least as important a role to play as the homeless service system in helping people to end their homelessness. Quigley and colleagues conclude that modest efforts to improve the availability and affordability of rental housing could substantially reduce homelessness in many communities (Quigley& Raphael, 2000; Mansur et al., 2002). Not surprisingly, in the Welfare to Work study cited above, using a housing choice voucher dramatically reduced both literal homelessness and the pattern of housing instability sometimes known as couch surfing (Mills et al., 2006).
Almost 5 million units of federally subsidized rental housing reduce rent to 30 percent of a households income. These units can be used to help people exit homelessness, and sometimes they are, with documented success (Shinn et al., 2001). There is fierce competition for the limited subsidy slots from low-income people who are not homeless, however, as housing assistance is not an entitlement but instead is rationed through waiting lists (Khadduri & Kaul, 2005). The assisted housing stock has come under pressure in several ways over the past five years. First, the supply has been reduced because owners of roughly 300,000 privately owned, subsidized units have chosen to leave the subsidy program at the end of their contracts, have been subjected to foreclosure, or have come under enforcement action by HUD. In addition, there have been losses in the public housing stock because of deterioration or redevelopment. Finally, reductions in the number of households assisted by the voucher program has increased demand for public housing and project-based units from eligible households who might otherwise have received a tenant-based voucher.
Some formerly homeless families and individuals can rent mainstream housing without a subsidy because they are able to work and find jobs that lift them out of poverty, or because they live in communities where rental housing is relatively inexpensive, or both. However, many formerly homeless families and individuals do not gain the ability to pay for unsubsidized housing as part of their exit from homelessness. The shortfall of mainstream subsidized rental housing limits the ability of the homeless services system to achieve the goal of ending homelessness.