Researchers Send Open Letter to the Administration: Follow the Evidence on Homelessness

This post is authored by Marybeth Shinn, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair, Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University. 

Last week, I joined over 50 other researchers in writing an open letter to the Trump Administration.  The goal was to urge the use of evidence-based practices in federal efforts to end homelessness.  The imperative was clear.  Unsheltered homelessness has been on the rise in recent years.  COVID-19 is an emerging crisis.  It may especially impact vulnerable people living outside or in crowded congregate shelters.  The crisis is further impacting the economy and workers across multiple sectors—the fallout will likely include spikes in homelessness.  Now is not the time to stray away from practices, like Housing First, that have been proven to work.  

The researchers who signed the letter study homelessness within a diversity of disciplines, including medicine, public health, social work, psychology, public policy, education, sociology, and economics.  Our concerns are rooted in a recent White House report on homelessness and subsequent remarks from the Administration.  They suggest a straying away from long-established practices with a history of bipartisan support within Congress and the Barack Obama and George W. Bush Administrations. 

Over the last couple of decades, both political parties have worked to expand and improve the federal government’s use of evidence-based practices.  In the field of homelessness, this includes: 

  • Housing First.  A significant body of research shows that Housing First participants are more housing stable than those enrolled in programs that condition housing on participation in services (transitional housing or residential treatment). 
  • Adequate Shelter.  Unsheltered homelessness is associated with health challenges in multiple studies.  And living outside complicates one’s ability to take care of his or her personal health needs.  These challenges point to need for permanent housing, and where that is unavailable, the provision of adequate temporary shelter. 
  • Ending Criminalization.  We are unaware of any studies demonstrating that criminalization reduces homelessness.  Instead, it merely moves homelessness from one location to another.  And repeated stays in jail add to criminal records—multiple studies illustrate that criminal records hinder efforts to secure employment and housing. 
  • Data Collection.  The Point-in-Time Count is the best available snapshot of both unsheltered and sheltered homelessness in America.  Although imperfect, it is consistently being improved and can (and should) be read in conjunction with other research and data sources. 

These basic, and well-established, evidence-based conclusions should continue to inform the federal response to homelessness. 

They also inform new research questions that further hone the nation’s understanding of (and approaches to) homelessness.  We offered to partner with the Trump Administration on such efforts.  We view the development of evidenced-based practices as collective work, involving researchers from various disciplines, public and private institutions, and workers with varying roles within homeless services systems. 

Together, and with evidence-based practices, we can end homelessness. 


Download the researchers’ letter here