When the Math Doesn’t Add Up: Ending Homelessness Requires Prevention

Summer is officially over, and school is back in session. So here’s some basic math to jog the brain: to end homelessness, the number of people exiting homelessness must be greater than the number of people entering homelessness.

In Los Angeles County, more than 10,000 chronically homeless individuals exited homelessness to housing in the past three years—a remarkable feat. And yet, the number of homeless persons continues to grow. So what’s happening in the equation?

Researchers for a recent study from the Economic Roundtable found that the households entering homelessness vastly outnumber the households exiting homelessness in Los Angeles. Researchers examined public data from 2002 to 2010. During that period, more than 13,000 public assistance recipients were newly identified as homeless every month, and 3,700 of these people were identified as chronically homeless.

If we return back to our math for ending homelessness, approximately 280 chronically homeless individuals exited homelessness each month over the past three years. But 3,700 individuals entered chronic homelessness monthly during the study period. To end chronic homelessness, Los Angeles must substantially reduce the flow of individuals into chronic homelessness.

The report therefore emphasizes the importance of prevention in the effort to end chronic homelessness. Not only can prevention strategies stop households from experiencing homelessness, but prevention tactics also can be used to ensure that one episode of homelessness does not become a lifetime of chronic homelessness. The report recommends six “tripwire events,” or indicators that individuals are at an increased risk for chronic homelessness:

  1. Current or former homelessness
  2. Lengthy or recurrent episodes of homelessness
  3. Experience of homelessness in childhood
  4. Experience of domestic violence
  5. Irregular school attendance in childhood
  6. Long-term unemployment in adulthood

Service providers can use these risk factors in screening and assessment, as research shows that each of these experiences greatly increases the chance that an individual will become chronically homeless. The study recommends that any child, adult, or family experiencing any of these tripwire events should receive immediate access to integrated, co-located services, including mental and behavioral health and substance abuse services.

We can’t prevent all homelessness. However, we can prevent many households from experiencing homelessness and, with appropriate screening tools, we can prevent one episode of homelessness from becoming a lifetime of chronic homelessness.

Graphic from "All Alone: Antecedents of Chronic Homelessness" by Daniel Fleming and Patrick Burns, underwritten by The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.