Housing is the Solution

This evening, the National Low Income Housing Coalition is presenting Nan Roman, Executive Director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, with the Edward W. Brooke, III Housing Leadership Award. Below, Nan shares with us what her work- and this award- means to her. Read more from the NAEH on their blog.

“While ending homelessness is a laudable goal, it is a mistaken one.  Clearly we can’t end homelessness.  We should set a more reasonable goal, like trying to reduce homelessness, or addressing it better.”

I heard this comment at a homelessness conference recently, and it’s a common one. People frequently ask me, “Can homelessness be ended?”

I have to say that the question really surprises me because we haven’t always had widespread homelessness.  In fact, when I began working on poverty and community issues in the late 1970s, people who lost their housing found a new place to live more or less immediately.  If someone was having a housing crisis, a social worker called a landlord or an SRO or boarding house and got the person a place to stay; they didn’t send them to a shelter.  There were some people who periodically used missions or other temporary shelters – usually when they were between occasional jobs or had used up their money.  But that was temporary.  People didn’t live in shelters and shelter was not the default response to housing crises.

Housing – not homelessness – was the solution to a housing crisis.

Today, if someone who is poor has a housing crisis, they are sent into the homelessness system (it should be noted that the people with the housing crisis aren’t always on board with this strategy, and will often go to extreme lengths to avoid homelessness).  Sending someone into the homelessness system is the individual case worker’s response.  But it is also the institutional response.  Jails release inmates with a list of shelters.  Hospitals have indigent patients taxied to shelter.  Mental health systems try to use the homeless system to house poor consumers leaving institutional care.

What has happened to change the equation from the early 1970s to now?  Senator Edward W. Brooke said in his 2007 autobiography, “We see levels of inadequate housing and homelessness that grow worse instead of better.”  Simply put, we once had enough affordable housing and now we don’t.  Notwithstanding all the other needs that people have, if they had housing, they wouldn’t be homeless.

This is why I am so honored to be receiving the Edward W. Brooke II Housing Leadership Award from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.  As Senator Brooke said, “The rhetoric of the American Dream continues to be far from reality for millions of [America’s] citizens.”  Housing is the solution to homelessness; it is the platform that people need to thrive and to realize the American Dream.  So being a homelessness advocate means being a housing advocate.

I know that homelessness can be ended, because I can remember a time when we didn’t have it; housing is the key.  Senator Brooke led the fight for affordable housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition has carried it forward.  We at the National Alliance to End Homelessness cannot achieve the goal that our name describes unless the Coalition is successful.  I am honored to be their partner.


  1. Galaxian says:

    “In the late 1970s, people who lost their housing found a new place to live more or less immediately” (quoted from post, above). Well, sorry to say, the ’70s are gone. The USA is more populous, which tends to reduce the value of individual lives. Skilled services and capital-intensive goods (like houses) are much more costly in relative terms than 30 or 40 years ago.

    Slo Homeless (2011 Feb. 28) proposes this national solution, here quoted from his blog at http://slohomeless.wordpress.com/

    “To be honest, if it were left up to me, I would reduce the amount being spent on homeless shelters by about half, and then re-direct the balance toward housing programs for the homeless.”

    The fundamental problem nonetheless remains: Those who get up in the morning and go to work to pay their rent generally resent those who do not. This is the principle of less eligibility in its simplest and starkest terms. Some homeless persons who can follow social norms can be helped. Others, who are unable or unwilling to comply with nonnegotiable demands upon which any assistance will be predicated, will not become self-supporting.

    As for the economic side of the problem, affordable housing is not built by private enterprise because it is not profitable enough, and because local communities tend to oppose it. Hence, decent low-cost housing requires subsidies that greatly inflate the costs, defeating its purpose. I suspect the problem of homelessness is deeply built into the structure of our society and will likely never see a real solution.

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