The Biden administration on Monday released a plan that seeks to eventually eradicate homelessness in the United States, starting with a 25% reduction in the number of people suffering from a lack of reliable access to safe housing over the next two years.
“My plan offers a roadmap for not only getting people into housing but also ensuring that they have access to the support, services, and income that allow them to thrive,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “It is a plan that is grounded in the best evidence and aims to improve equity and strengthen collaboration at all levels.”
All In: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness is based on input from thousands of service providers, elected officials, housing advocates, and others—including more than 500 people who have been unhoused—across nearly 650 communities, tribes, and territories.
According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), which held dozens of listening sessions to gather feedback while developing its 104-page blueprint, the new multiyear plan “will do more than any previous federal effort to systemically prevent homelessness and combat the systemic racism that has created racial and ethnic disparities in homelessness.”
After steadily declining from 2010 to 2016, homelessness around the U.S. has been climbing in recent years. More than one million people experienced “sheltered homelessness” at some point in 2022. Meanwhile, more than 582,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2022, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted its annual “point-in-time count”—a method some advocates say underrepresents the severity of the crisis.
Unhoused individuals have been wrongfully blamed for their predicament, says the White House, which attributes the deadly public health crisis to structural failures, including decades of worsening economic inequality and skyrocketing housing costs. The convergence of stagnating pay and a shortage of affordable housing has led to a situation where “in no state can a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent,” the plan points out.
Mass incarceration; long-standing patterns of discrimination against people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and elderly people; the Covid-19 pandemic; and fossil fuel-driven extreme weather disasters have exacerbated housing injustices.
While housing advocates credit the federal eviction moratorium and financial assistance for preempting a dramatic surge in homelessness during the pandemic, the problem remains acute in many cities, such as Los Angeles, where Democratic Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency over the issue last week. Experts warn that the termination of federal aid increases the risk of a major spike in homelessness going forward.
Although a majority (60%) of the nation’s unhoused population lives in shelters or other temporary accommodations, a growing share (40%) are struggling in unsheltered settings, including cars, streets, or encampments, according to Biden’s roadmap.
“Homelessness is largely the result of failed policies,” says the plan. “Severely underfunded programs and inequitable access to quality education, healthcare (including treatment for mental health conditions and/or substance use disorders), and economic opportunity have led to an inadequate safety net.”
“The fundamental solution to homelessness is housing,” the plan continues. “When a person is housed, they have a platform to address all their needs, no matter how complex.”
The plan is critical of the “criminalization” of homelessness, which has led to the arrests of unhoused people or the destruction of encampments. Last month, for instance, Democratic New York City Mayor Eric Adams instructed local law enforcement and emergency medical workers to respond to unhoused mentally ill people with involuntary hospitalizations.
“Some have resorted to clearing encampments without providing alternative housing options for the people living in them,” Biden’s plan notes. “Unless encampment closures are conducted in a coordinated, humane, and solutions-oriented way that makes housing and supports adequately available, these ‘out of sight, out of mind’ policies can… set people back in their pathway to housing.”
Preventing people from becoming unhoused in the first place is key. As NPR reported Monday: “More people than ever are being moved out of homelessness in the U.S., just over 900,000 a year on average since 2017. The problem is that about the same number or more have lost housing in the past few years.”
USICH executive director Jeff Olivet told The Washington Post that “if we don’t implement strategies that stem that inflow, we can’t bail out the bathtub fast enough.”
As NPR noted: “The new plan includes a range of ways to boost the supply of affordable housing, as well as increase the number of emergency shelters and support programs. But its biggest change is a call for the ‘systematic prevention of homelessness,’ focusing on those who are struggling to keep them from losing their housing.”
The outlet continued:
Paul Downey has worked as an advocate fighting homelessness for three decades, and says the focus has always been how to help those on the streets get into a shelter, get services, and get back into permanent housing. What there hasn’t been, he says, is “a lot of discussion about how we stop it from occurring in the first place,” even though “it is the obvious thing.”
Downey had an “aha moment” about prevention when he surveyed hundreds of seniors last year. The vast majority said just a few hundred dollars a month could keep them off the streets. He took that to local officials. Now both the city of San Diego and San Diego County have a pilot program to subsidize rent for at-risk seniors and others by up to $500 a month.
Downey says this is a bargain compared with the estimated $35,000 a year it costs for one person experiencing homelessness in San Diego, factoring in the actions of police and other first responders, the criminal justice system, and hospital emergency rooms. He plans to study the impact of the rent subsidy pilot and hopes it’s a model that can expand.
Sean Read, chief community solutions officer at the Friendship Place, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, told NPR that preventing homelessness in the long term requires “more housing, more housing, more housing.”
Meanwhile, Steve Berg, chief policy officer for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told the Post that “there’s a lot of specificity that’s missing” in Biden’s roadmap.
“Who is exactly going to do what to make this happen?” he asked. “That is not the role of this particular document.”
According to Olivet, “Housing should be treated as a human right.”
“Many Americans ask, ‘Is it possible to end homelessness?’ The answer is, yes, the United States can end homelessness by fixing systems—not by blaming the people being failed by them,” he said.
“With All In, the Biden-Harris administration outlined a set of strategies and actions for doing just that,” Olivet added. “Now we must scale what works and develop new and creative solutions to build a future where no one experiences the tragedy and indignity of homelessness—and everyone has a safe, stable, accessible, and affordable home.”