For Nan Roman, her belief has always been that homelessness in the United States is a solvable problem.

Nan Roman
Nan Roman

“It still seems to me a needless problem in a country like America that we have people who literally have no place to sleep,” she says.

For the past three decades, she has been pushing for change in her roles at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that was founded in 1983 to meet the needs of the emerging homeless population.

“Nan has had a huge responsibility from changing how we address homelessness to how we end homelessness. We have to have that orientation to our work, or we’re not giving our best,” says Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “It’s been a fundamental transformation for the whole field, and she gets a tremendous amount of credit for making that change. She makes it clear what we need to do. Fundamentally, homelessness is about access to housing. Without housing solutions for people, we can’t achieve our goals or help people achieve their goals.”

Much of the Alliance’s focus has been on collecting data to understand the scope of the homelessness problems and what solutions work for the best outcomes as well as collaborating with local and national partners to support those solutions.

“I think that progress has been made on homelessness because we focused on outcomes and problem solving,” Roman says. “We were very early in trying to push for better data about homelessness. We worked with Congress to get a requirement that communities collect data on homelessness so that they could measure outcomes locally, and HUD could track the number of people who were homeless nationally.”

In 2000, the Alliance issued a challenge for communities and the nation to develop and implement plans for ending homelessness, with Housing First as a main strategy. The Housing First approach quickly provides permanent housing for homeless individuals and families without barriers to entry. This can be through permanent supportive housing with long-term rental assistance and wraparound services or rapid re-housing with short-term assistance and services to get households back on their feet.

"The now universal conclusion that we can end homelessness and such bold strategies as Housing First are a credit to Nan's leadership, skill, integrity, and tireless pursuit of the goal to eliminate homelessness," says Conrad Egan, chairman emeritus of Community Preservation Development Corp. and a 2008 Affordable Housing Hall of Fame inductee.

The nation’s homelessness numbers had started to drop by 2005 but saw an increase during the Great Recession. The number then started to go down again until 2017, when the total number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January was 553,742, a 0.7% year-over-year increase, the first increase since the January 2010 point-in-time count.

“It’s distressing that we made so much progress for so long on this needless problem, and now we’re stalled. We’ve been making progress, but it hasn’t been fast enough. The number had been going down until last year, when it was flat,” she says. “That’s basically because the affordable housing crisis is getting worse and worse. We are moving people out of the homeless system and into housing faster, yet the number is not going down because there are more people coming in.”

Drilling down

For Roman, whose career has focused on poverty and housing at the local and national level, she hopes to see the dial moving in the right direction soon. The Alliance is focused on the affordable housing component, joining the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, which is bringing together other sectors, such as education, civil rights, and health organizations, to address the need and importance of affordable housing.

“Opportunity Starts at Home brings together all these other groups to join with housing organizations to say enough is enough,” she says. “We have to do something about this affordable housing problem. None of these other groups can achieve their health or education or employment goals if people aren’t stably housed.”

The Alliance also continues to focus on data, strategies, and outcomes. It is currently taking a closer look at racial disparities in homelessness as well as at unsheltered individuals and families, which make up one-third of the nation’s homeless population, according to recent data from HUD.

“There’s very little strategy on how to house them. We’re very focused on finding better strategies for the unsheltered homeless and people in encampments,” she adds.

Outside of work, Roman is on the board of two service organizations in Washington, D.C., where she lives, which gives her an on-the-ground view. She also enjoys spending time with her family—her husband Tom, who is editor of, and daughter Allie, who is getting her master’s at the London School of Economics.

“I feel that I’m a very lucky person. I get to do work that is so meaningful,” adds Roman. “Many people have gotten into housing, and I have had a small role in that.”