How Do We End Homelessness?

Three CAS experts share their ideas for combating homelessness

| in Community, Features, The Big Question


By Mandile Mpofu (COM’23)

In the United States, over 500,000 people experience homelessness every night.

The rate of homelessness has been on the rise since 2017, and state and local governments have attempted to address the issue. In Massachusetts, the City of Boston announced an action plan in 2015 that aimed to decrease chronic and veteran homelessness by 19 percent and 3 percent respectively. While the city has made notable progress, in 2021, 15,000 individuals experienced homelessness in Boston, with over 2,000 of them being veterans or chronically homeless.

On a federal level, the Biden-Harris administration announced, in 2022, a strategic plan to prevent and halt homelessness. The administration set an ambitious goal to reduce homelessness by 25 percent by 2025. However, since 2020, homelessness has increased by 0.3 percent, pushing the objective to end homelessness further out of reach.

How do we end homelessness? Associate professor of social work Thomas Byrne shared a phrase he once heard the head of a homeless services agency use: “the solution to the problem is in the name of the problem.”  That is, by definition, people are homeless because they lack a home, and thus if we provide them with a home, they are no longer homeless. So, if we have good evidence about what works to end homelessness, why haven’t we made more progress?

We asked three faculty members from three different academic disciplines to share their thoughts on the country’s homelessness crisis and what it would take to end it.

Katherine Levine Einstein, an associate professor of political science, specializes in American politics, and urban politics and policy. She studies the politics of housing in the United States to understand the housing crisis.

Catherine Caldwell-Harris, an associate professor of psychology, studies the emotional reactivity to language and has produced groundbreaking research in psycholinguistics.

Loretta Lees, a professor of sociology, studies gentrification, urban policy, and urban social theory. In 2022, she published her book Defensible Space: Mobilisation in English Housing Policy and Practice, co-authored with Elanor Warwick.

Katherine Levine Einstein, associate professor of political science

America is in the midst of a homelessness crisis. The challenges are especially acute in cities, which are disproportionately home to America’s unhoused. Addressing this problem is of paramount importance: unhoused people experience greater physical and mental health struggles, higher mortality rates, and poorer education, economic, and social outcomes.

The primary cause of homelessness is insufficient affordable housing. Escalating housing prices have left many Americans in precarious living situations, sometimes leading to eviction and homelessness. Once an individual loses their home, securing new housing becomes a formidable challenge: a lack of a fixed address can lead to job loss, challenges in obtaining social services and public benefits, and an increased likelihood of experiencing the punitive policies of America’s carceral state, such as fines or citations for illegal camping or panhandling.

Communities with abundant, affordable housing experience lower rates of homelessness. To end homelessness, America must make housing more affordable. Doing so is conceptually simple, but politically complicated: America must build more housing. Local governments must remove land use regulations and zoning laws that make it difficult to build housing of all types. State and federal policymakers should incentivize (or, ideally, require) local land use laws to be set to allow for greater housing density. With their superior financial resources, state and federal governments should also focus subsidy efforts on increasing the supply of new housing.

Building new housing unfortunately takes time, making this a long-term policy solution. In the short-term, to alleviate the suffering of people who are currently unhoused, federal, state, and local governments must better coordinate housing subsidies and social services–and eschew policy approaches that emphasize policing homelessness. But, ultimately, if American communities hope to end homelessness, they must take the politically courageous step of building more housing, even in places with deep-seated opposition to new homes.

Catherine Caldwell-Harris, associate professor of psychology

A simple google of the question, “How do we end homelessness,” reveals many websites, position papers, and easy-to-read bullet-pointed plans. The obstacle is not knowledge. The obstacles are willpower and values. Does our society value an end to homelessness? Simple answer: No.

Why is ending homelessness not valued by American taxpayers, voters, and elected officials?

Few humans want to live in a fully egalitarian society. In societies with large status differences, as occurs in much of the developed world, people grow up with those status differences. Growing up with hierarchy means being socialized to accept the existence of a status hierarchy.

What concerns people is not ending or reducing the wealth hierarchy but ensuring that they and their families are not at the bottom and are preferably safely at least somewhere in the middle or even, if possible, near the top. This is called status striving. It is not evil; it is an understandable consequence of the structure of the contemporary world.

Making sure you and your family are not at the bottom is not a petty concern. Finding your way to a safe spot in the social hierarchy is so important that it usually dwarfs ambitions to try to alter the status quo. Once you’ve fought your way to “social security” (achieving existential security within your society), would you have the energy or desire for the altruistic act of helping those less fortunate? Depending on the values imparted to you while growing up, and the severity of your own fight for security, you may have the attitude: I made it, why can’t they?

But wouldn’t people prioritize ending homelessness out of empathy for others, or to have the benefit of living in a more egalitarian world?

Some people may genuinely desire to end homelessness if a magic wand could be waved and homelessness would end. But the policy papers and bullet-pointed lists on how to end homelessness entail considerable effort and direction of government funds. Most people have other priorities for the spending of tax dollars or even feel taxation and public spending should be reduced.

But worse than disinterest in ending homelessness is that many in society are actively opposed to ending homelessness. Remember the idea that people needed to accept hierarchy to navigate their way to a higher position within the hierarchy. Once you’ve accepted hierarchy, you may also actively work to maintain it. This is called system-justification. An example is the belief that homeless populations deserve where they ended up; government handouts encourage some people to cheat their way to social security.

Loretta Lees, director of the Initiative on Cities and professor of sociology

Homelessness is a complex issue, there are many reasons why people find themselves homeless. It can affect all types of people, at any time and anywhere. Under international law housing is a human right, yet it is often viewed as a commodity. The UN talks about being adequately housed – that is having security of tenure, which means living without the threat of eviction, in keeping with your culture or community, and having access to employment, services, and education.

In 2021 The World Economic Forum reported 150 million people were homeless worldwide. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted around 582,000 Americans experiencing homelessness in 2022; and as real estate professor Gregg Colburn lectured in the Initiative on Cities at Boston University, differences in per capita homelessness rates across the country are not due to mental illness, drug addiction, or poverty, but to differences in the cost of housing.

In ending homelessness Finland has been seen as a world leader through their Housing First initiative which gives the homeless a home first rather than putting them in shelters or temporary accommodation. In addition to a home, support is also provided to help keep them in their home and tackle the issues that made them homeless, whether addiction, domestic violence, mental health, unemployment, or arrears. Under Mayor Wu, Boston now also offers ‘wrap around’ services to homeless individuals who require an additional level of care.

But you cannot do Housing First without making sure housing is affordable, building truly affordable homes is critical. On top of this, there needs to be state support to enable homeless people to afford a home and pay their bills. The City of Cambridge is to give low-income families $500 a month as part of a new guaranteed income program. Of course, preventing people from coming homeless in the first place makes economic and social sense.

Small things help, like providing those about to be evicted for rent arrears a small amount of money or making sure those coming out of care, hospital, or prison are helped to get secure accommodation. Finally, the BU Initiative on Cities Menino Survey of Mayors shows that the police are key players in US homelessness policymaking, meaning that even those policies whose aims are supportive of unhoused people may in practice be highly punitive. The Initiative on Cities recommends that cities fund and use alternative outreach teams that do not involve the police and that further steps are taken to reduce the criminalization of homelessness.