Large-scale equity solutions needed to eliminate root causes of homelessness

Makeshift Shelters in DTLA
Tents and makeshift shelters near Route 110 in Los Angeles. Source: Laurie Avocado

By Liam Bohen-Meissner

Housing alone is not a solution for eliminating homelessness, emphasized participants in a panel on “Homelessness in America: The Search for Solutions During COVID-19” panel.

Panelists called for large-scale efforts tackling root causes of homelessness, such as structural racism and a shortage of affordable housing.

Although the panelists said they believe that COVID-19 has highlighted and increased needs surrounding homelessness, the discussion focused on long-term solutions for ending a crisis that is growing as more people lose jobs and face chronic economic inequities.

“What we know at a time of crisis, especially during this pandemic, is that COVID-19 is not and never was the great equalizer,” said Amanda Andere, chief executive officer of Funders Together to End Homelessness. “In fact, it has only exasperated the structural inequities that already exist.”

The panel, hosted Feb. 22, by The Forum at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, included participants from different backgrounds from non-profit to public health. Each panelist brought different points of view on how to solve this crisis.

Homelessness In America Panel
The panel of experts for the “Homelessness in America: The Search for Solutions During COVID-19 event.” Source: Liam Bohen-Meissner

A mix of public policy and education opportunities must head the solutions action plan, said Howard Koh, professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School.

He discussed some of the measures that are being taken by the federal government, such as the Biden administration’s foreclosure moratorium and the $1.9 trillion stimulus and relief bill that Congress is currently negotiating. The bill contains a section dedicating approximately $30 billion in rental, water, and energy assistance and approximately $5 billion to helping those experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless.

But Koh backs solutions focused on education as well. He serves as faculty chair of the Chan School’s Initiative on Health and Homelessness, which promotes education and research addressing poor health for people experiencing homelessness. It is one of the few universities in America with an academic center dedicated to studying homelessness and he plans to extend partnerships to other universities in the future.

“So I’m hoping that starting now, we can all commit to doing more to address this crisis because it doesn’t affect just some of us, it affects all of us,” Koh said. “But more critically, we need to talk about how we address these issues better together in a coordinated fashion across all sectors.”

Rosanne Haggerty supports solutions on a community level. She is president of Community Solutions, an organization with offices across the country dedicated to creating a lasting end to homelessness. Community Solutions launched a campaign in 2015 called “Built for Zero” which comprises 84 communities across the country committed to ending homelessness.

“We have come to see that homelessness is basically a complex systems problem,” Haggerty said. “It’s about system failure. It’s about choices, historic racism that has really created a landscape [where] we must actually work differently on this problem.”

Community Solutions uses a “public health model.” Haggerty said the approach focuses on including from across the community, “the right team of all of the key players who have resources, information, rural control to actually focus on the aim of reducing homelessness.”

According to Community Solutions, 14 communities have met the requirement to effectively put an end to veteran or chronic homelessness through Built for Zero. The suburb of North Chicago and Arlington, Virginia are examples of communities that put an end to chronic homelessness in 2015 and 2018 respectively. But Haggerty, like Koh, warns that this homelessness can affect everyone and will take everyone to end especially during COVID-19.

Andere also advocates for a community-based approach but one centered on housing and racial justice.  Rather than rely on a few organizations people or politicians, with power and data to address homelessness, resources should be distributed to communities themselves to be put to use how they need or want them to be, she said.

“We need to decolonize gatekeepers who hold power, that’s including myself, people in philanthropy, everyone on this panel, you are a gatekeeper,” she said. “And the goal of justice is to get resources in communities and not be held by any one entity or organization. That’s your political power, your actual money, your ability to influence policymakers, move out of the way.”

She reiterated throughout the event that those who possess such resources often have had little personal experience with homelessness. She asked the other panelists to redistribute the power they hold “so people with lived expertise, people closest to the ground and closest to the problem are at the table not with a folding chair, but with a permanent chair. And then [they] get to create their own spaces with the power that they rightfully deserve to make decisions about the policies that are impacting them for years.”

The incremental approach to ending homelessness in America is not enough, she said. She, along with the other panelists know that large-scale efforts are needed to make a difference in tackling homelessness.

“We need big investments that look at structures, that do look at systems change. But we can’t just rely on this incremental approach to housing and have to think about housing justice through housing as an entitlement, as a right, through universal housing,” she said.

Liam Bohen-Meissner is a health and politics reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @lbmeissner.