Housing America: Addressing Challenges in Serving People Experiencing Homelessness

Testimony of Alliance CEO, Nan Roman, to the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee (Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance) at the Housing America: Addressing Challenges in Serving People Experiencing Homelessness hearing (February 2, 2022).

Thank you so much Chairman Cleaver, Ranking Member Hill, Chairwoman Waters, and members of the subcommittee for inviting me to testify before you today. I am Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which is a nonpartisan, nonprofit education, policy, and capacity building organization.

Briefly, a few comments on where we stand on homelessness.

Homelessness has been going up slightly every year since 2016. Due to the pandemic, we are not certain of where the numbers stand today.

The Alliance has conducted four surveys of the nation’s Continuums of Care (CoCs) during the pandemic, and most feel that the number of homeless people is up, including the unsheltered. It is our belief that unsheltered homelessness has likely increased, and it is possible that overall homelessness has increased. People of color are disproportionately homeless, and there are disparities in the availability and impact of the assistance they receive from the homeless assistance system. 

This is where we stand on homelessness today. 

Thanks to your work, there is a significant opportunity at the moment to make a serious dent in the problem of homelessness. 

The inability of people to afford housing is the major driver of homelessness, and the major solution to it. That is not to say that people do not need services and jobs. They do need services and jobs. But everything works better when people have safe, stable, affordable housing – I think we can all say that about our own lives. 

During the past two years, you have generously provided, through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, the very resources that people who are experiencing homelessness need to return to housing. And Build Back Better, should it advance, will build upon them. These resources are not going to be enough to end homelessness, but they can certainly reverse its course. They represent a significant opportunity for us to make a difference.

Of course, there are also many challenges to making progress.

A key challenge is to apply the resources that you have provided in the most strategic ways possible. Organizations, agencies and their staff are depleted and struggling. It is easier to house people who have lower needs, who do not require services, who are more “acceptable” to landlords, or who are not yet homeless, than it is to house people who are literally homeless, possibly unsheltered, and have high service needs. 

But to reduce homelessness, we really need to focus on the latter group, not the former. 

A critical priority is the need to address the needs of unsheltered people. It is just not acceptable that in a nation with the resources and capacity of ours, 230,000 people should be sleeping on the streets every night. Data indicate that people who are unsheltered have much more serious health problems and shorter life expectancies than people living in shelter. This group should be a top priority for us, and I’m not sure that it is.

Another challenge is staff shortages. Most CoCs report significant shortages in staff across the board. While the sector welcomes and appreciates new resources and initiatives, it can struggle to implement them and follow up on those resources without staff. 

Similarly, new funding and initiatives often require the creation of new partnerships– important but hard work that many simply feel too overwhelmed to undertake at the moment. 

One final challenge is the possibility that there will be a significant post-pandemic increase in homelessness. Many federal supports will be coming to an end, and the nation is facing a period of high inflation, including for housing. While I hope the strategic use of stimulus resources prevents it, we should prepare for a wave of increased homelessness – possibly in the summer or next fall. 

Given these opportunities and challenges, there are some key solutions that the Alliance encourages communities to invest in to reduce homelessness.

We recommend that communities use the funds to help people with the highest needs, including people who are unsheltered; those experiencing chronic homelessness; people with disabilities; families with children and pregnant women; and older adults who are homeless. 

On the other hand, we recommend that the funds not be used for prevention of homelessness; there are other resources available for that. We recommend that communities allocate their resources to strategies that are specifically designed to reduce racial disparities and eliminate racial disproportionality.

It is important to focus our resources on proven solutions, such as Housing First. Housing First is not “housing only.”

We recommend that jurisdictions take the opportunity to investigate the possibility of converting available office, commercial, and hotel/motel space to housing. And we recommend investing in those partnerships that are needed.

In closing, while people experiencing homelessness have suffered tremendously, the resources that Congress have ended homelessness for tens of thousands of people, and we thank you for that.