Opportunities and Challenges in Addressing Homelessness

Testimony of Alliance CEO, Ann Oliva, to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs at the “Opportunities and Challenges in Addressing Homelessness” hearing on July 19, 2022. 

Chairwoman Smith, Ranking Member Rounds, and members of the Subcommittee, my name is Ann Oliva and I am the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness and a board member of True Colors United. Thank you for inviting me to testify.    

I want to commend this Subcommittee for the housing-related relief measures enacted during the pandemic. I will talk about the positive results of those investments momentarily. 

The Need 

But first I will start with the data. 

All the reliable evidence tells us that the situation for people experiencing homelessness is incredibly urgent, and that the homelessness crisis – which predates the pandemic – will persist without serious intervention.  

In 2020, HUD reported two unfortunate firsts. We saw an increase in the number of people in families with children living unsheltered, and we saw the number of individuals living on the streets exceed the number of individuals living in shelters for the first time.  

More than 580,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2020 and  one and a half million people experienced sheltered homelessness at some time in 2018.  

  • People of color and historically marginalized people are disproportionally impacted by homelessness.   
  • Families experiencing homelessness are typically headed by women, many are headed by young parents and they include a high percentage of young children.  
  • Youth, veterans and adults experiencing chronic homelessness are suffering on our streets and in shelters every day.  
  • And data shows that more than half of sheltered people and 40% of unsheltered people work but still cannot afford housing.  

Most Continuums of Care we surveyed believed that unsheltered homelessness has increased.  

Our information from the field also indicates that the number of families experiencing homelessness seems to have decreased during the pandemic. This is likely the result of pandemic relief measures like the Child Tax Credits, unemployment insurance supplements, Emergency Rental Assistance, the eviction moratorium, and other steps that Congress and the Administration took to protect extremely low-income families from the impacts of the pandemic. Those programs worked. 

But as those policies and investments end at the exact time that we see rents skyrocket nationwide, we can expect to see negative consequences if we fail to act 

Skyrocketing rents make it harder for low-income people to stay in their homes, create even greater challenges for people exiting incarceration or systems like child welfare, and make it even more difficult to get people experiencing homelessness into safe and affordable housing.  

The inability of people to afford housing is the major driver of homelessness. People experiencing homelessness do want and need other resources like health and behavioral health services and employment services. But a safe, stable and affordable place to live ends homelessness and provides the foundation for achieving other life goals. 

Pandemic Investments 

The housing investments made as part of the nation’s pandemic response helped people across the country keep or get into housing. For example: 

  • More than 3.8 million households have received Emergency Rental Assistance so they can stay in their homes. 
  • Nearly 90% of the 70,000 emergency housing vouchers for households experiencing or at-risk of homelessness have been issued or leased.  

We can learn from what has worked and what hasn’t as we look to the future. But given the circumstances I laid out earlier in my testimony, we know that these programs were not enough.       

Challenges and Affordable Housing 

Because we are facing daunting challenges.  

  • Rising rents and low availability make finding and keeping permanent housing more difficult for homeless and at-risk people.  
  • Homeless systems consistently report significant staffing challenges like staff shortages, high turnover and burnout. 
  • Linking mainstream health and behavioral health services with housing can be a challenge. 
  • And criminalization of people experiencing homelessness is rising.  

But we know what works.  

Making evidence-based policy decisions in addition to sustained investments in housing and services at the national level is critical. This includes protecting the affordable housing stock we have, increasing supply, increasing affordability by expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program and making the services that people want and need more accessible.  

And further, it means supporting evidence-based approaches to ending homelessness for individuals and families that prioritize permanent housing and choice as the foundation for healing from the trauma of homelessness. It also means partnering with people who have lived experience of homelessness so the changes we make are informed by real-world and practical expertise. 

The information we have tells us that the public wants and end to homelessness not by criminalizing people, but by implementing sound housing and service solutions so that people can thrive. We know how to do that. 

Now is the time for bold action and to set communities up for success.  

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.