2009 was a tumultuous year for all Americans, but it was especially hard on those experiencing—or at risk of—homelessness. The poor economy and high unemployment that affected so many of us greatly raised the homelessness threat level. Unfortunately, there is not likely to be a quick fix, especially for poor people, so it is quite possible that 2010 could be the year that job and housing losses translate into a big increase in the homeless population. The landscape of the future will depend on whether we are determined enough to seize opportunities and smart enough to invest in affordable housing while we can.
Homelessness is associated with three indicators: unemployment, poverty, and housing costs. Over the past year, unemployment rose to historic highs. Although it may be starting to level off, the impact of high unemployment is often increased poverty, the second indicator. High unemployment and high poverty result in more homelessness. In fact, the National Alliance to End Homelessness predicts that homelessness will increase by as much as 34 percent by 2011. The only hopeful sign is a softening rental market, which may offset these other factors to some extent.
Is there any way to prevent a recession- related increase in homelessness? Fortunately, the answer is yes, but it won't be easy.
First, even as demand increases, we need to resist the temptation to return to Band-Aids. They haven't solved the problem for the past 20 years, and they won't solve it now. Rather than building more shelter, we need to stick to solutions: prevention, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities. We know these solutions work—they reduced homelessness across the country before the tidal wave of the recession hit.
Second, there are opportunities to be taken advantage of now, while housing costs are low. The other housing crisis—the affordable housing crisis—has taken a back seat to the foreclosure crisis of late. But despite the challenges, and they are many, we can make progress. Using resources like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, we could be acquiring affordable housing and making it permanently affordable. We could also put some of that laid off housing construction capacity to work building housing where the need is greatest—for the lowestincome Americans.
Finally, while the federal government has mostly been bailing out the financial sector, it also made some pretty significant resources available to help homeless people. The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program was included in the federal recovery act. It spreads $1.5 billion across the country so that communities can prevent homelessness for those at highest risk, and quickly re-house people who do become homeless. Although it's flowing out the door fast, it should help avert at least some of that projected increase.
We've learned a lot about how to end homelessness over the past 10 years, and we've proved that it's something we can do. It would be a tragedy if the recession caused us to lose our momentum. By taking advantage of federal resources and not losing focus on solutions, it is possible for us to avert a new generation of homelessness.
Nan Roman is president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. She is guest editor of the January/February issue of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE.