Current Federal Relief Could Largely Solve Homelessness Right Now!

Author(s): Joy Moses, Sharon McDonald

Over the last two years, federal pandemic relief dollars were allotted to several government programs, creating the potential to substantially end literal homelessness for the overall population (or at least for some highly vulnerable subpopulations). Two government programs are particularly relevant: Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHVs), which provide long-term rental subsidies to a few; and Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA), which can provide short-term rental subsidies to many.

Funds have already been allocated and are in circulation for each of these programs. However, for those states and communities that have yet to strategically coordinate these resources towards ending literal homelessness, it’s not too late to change course.

Emergency Housing Vouchers

Congress created 70,000 EHVs, enough to reach 6 percent of households annually served in the nation’s shelters. This number is notably small. However, targeting EHVs to small and vulnerable subpopulations could have a significant impact on those groups.

For example, focusing on people annually served in shelter, the nation’s 70,000 EHVs could serve 45 percent of households with children, or 30 percent of adult-only households headed by someone age 55 and older. Although it is unlikely that every jurisdiction in America receiving EHVs would decide to dedicate 100 percent of their EHVs to one of these subpopulations, these numbers provide a sense of the scale of available resources. Communities that strategically target EHVs can create big impacts in reducing homelessness for particularly vulnerable subpopulations.

And, although EHVs have already been allocated, it’s not too late to hone existing plans. As of early January 2022, only 28 percent of the nation’s vouchers have already been issued.

Emergency Rental Assistance

Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA), which was allotted a total of $46.55 billion in two parts, has been a critical component of the federal pandemic response. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, ​as of mid-January 2022, 39 percent of ERA1 funds and 82 percent of ERA2 funds were unspent and continue to be available.

News outlets, policymakers, and others often highlight how these funds can (and are) being mobilized to prevent evictions. However, these dollars can also reach people experiencing literal homelessness. Specifically, ERA can provide supports like those offered by Rapid Re-Housing programs—examples include rent payments, security deposits, application or screening fees, utilities, housing search, landlord negotiation, and case management related to housing instability.i

Emergency Rental Assistance resources can pack a powerful punch. Here’s an example: if just 18 percent of the allotted $46.55 billion were targeted towards assisting people out of homelessness, $7500 (a number chosen for illustration purposes) could be dedicated to every American household that is annually served in shelters. These calculations are based on the number of households (individuals and families with children) that experienced homelessness in 2018 (the most recent year for which such data is available)—thus they do not account for population changes occurring as a result of the pandemic. The $7500 subsidy value was chosen for illustrative purposes, but would cover at least 3 months of fair market rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the nation’s most expensive jurisdictions. As a practical matter, individual household circumstances vary—notably, households with individuals would likely have cheaper rents and $7500 could last several more months (and possibly a year or more) if the household has additional income from work and/or other benefits programs.

While just 18 percent of national ERA funds is required to reach all households experiencing homelessness, an even smaller share of these resources is needed to reach everyone within a particular subpopulation (for example, families with children or older adults).

For some individuals and families, ERA-funded assistance (some combination of rental subsidy and services) will be a bridge towards permanent housing. Indeed, existing research on Rapid Re-Housing programs suggests that this will be the case for most people. However, for others, temporary subsidies will not be enough to overcome high housing cost challenges. For this group, ERA will reduce time spent in congregate shelters or unsheltered situations. This time is especially valuable during a pandemic, in which the inability to isolate from others can be harmful to one’s health.

Table: A Fraction of ERA Could Rehouse Everyone Served Annually in the Nation’s Shelters

Individuals and Family Households* Headed by a… % of ERA Dollars Required to Dedicate $7500 to All Entering Shelter Each Year (Nationwide)
Veteran 2%
Parent with Children 3%
Person with a Disability 9%
Chronically Homeless 3%
Older Adult (55+) in Adult-Only Household 4%
D.V. Survivor 3%
Anyone (All Households Annually Entering Shelter) 18%

* For some subpopulations, calculations were based on approximate household counts.

Case Studies: Drilling Down to the Local Level

What would happen if specific communities strategically targeted their EHV and ERA resources towards the number of people experiencing homelessness most recently counted in communities’ Point-in-Time Counts (a limited time frame in January of each year when communities count both sheltered and unsheltered people)?

Asking this question is another way to provide a sense of the scale of federal investments in communities—specifically, the potential impacts of current ERA and EHV resources in relation to the size of homeless populations and subpopulations.

The above interactive visualization allows users to play policymaker using data from real communities (although their names have been changed for the purposes of this experiment). A standard $7500/household in ERA funds is assumed for illustration purposes. Users can decide to target everyone experiencing homelessness or aim to impact a vulnerable subpopulation (for example, people in families or chronically homeless individuals). Visualization users can also experiment with the shares of both EHV and ERA resources they want to dedicate to their chosen group(s).


No matter the community, the interactive visualization demonstrates that small percentages of ERA funds could easily ensure housing subsidies for entire homeless populations and subpopulations. And EHVs have the potential to provide greater levels of housing security to a subset of those in need.

There are certain real-world challenges that exist beyond the data. Finding available, affordable units for everyone who needs them can be daunting in most communities across America. It may not be easy to reach agreements amongst different agencies and organizations. However, despite such barriers, it’s clear that strategic uses of resources could move individual communities far along the road to ending homelessness.

i Note: ERA1 limits only allows for 3 months of future rent payments. Participants can submit a subsequent application for additional months of assistance. ERA1 also requires that the housing needs be COVID-related. Presumably, avoiding the health risks associated with congregate shelters and unsheltered living is sufficiently related to the pandemic. ERA2 does not have a 3-month rule or a COVID-related requirement.