Homelessness prevention refer to policies, programs and strategies that are designed to prevent an individual or family from living in an emergency shelter or a public or private place not intended for human habitation. Homelessness can have detrimental effects on an individual or family’s mental and physical health — often exposing people to high levels of stress, communicable disease, violence and harmful weather. While homeless shelters and related public services help reduce exposure to harm, the costs of these services are significant; a chronically homeless person costs taxpayers an average of nearly $36,000 per year. By comparison, preventative measures for homelessness, such as supportive housing, reduce this annual cost by 49.5 percent ($12,800 annually).
What are Homelessness Prevention Activities?
People can become homeless for a myriad of reasons at any stage of life and preventative solutions to homelessness should reflect the multifaceted nature of homelessness. Successful homelessness prevention activities will support those possibly at risk of becoming homeless and provide necessary services to keep people in safe and stable homes instead of emergency shelters or unsheltered homelessness. Such activities include:
Homelessness can have detrimental effects on an individual or family’s mental and physical health — often exposing people to high levels of stress, communicable disease, violence and harmful weather.
Eviction prevention is not just about preventing housing instability, but also about laying the foundation for systems that will foster housing stability for communities in the long term. Cities and local governments play a vital role in preventing evictions and supporting households when an eviction is filed. It is important for cities to develop a robust eviction prevention strategy due to the significant positive association between the rate of eviction filings and the rate of sheltered homelessness. Types of eviction prevention solutions include:
- Right to counsel programs can help ensure a renter’s right to legal representation and address inherent power and resource imbalances in eviction court proceedings. In cities that enact a right to counsel, qualifying tenants are provided or appointed a lawyer for their eviction case at government expense. Due to their high level of power and legal representation, eviction cases almost always favor the landlord instead of the tenant. Right to counsel programs help bridge the gap of legal representation and ensure that tenants have an attorney present.
- Just Cause (or “good cause”) programs limit the grounds upon which a landlord is able to evict a tenant. When landlords are required to have a “just cause” for evicting a tenant, tenants are better protected from arbitrary, retaliatory, or discriminatory evictions.
- Eviction Diversion programs are designed to divert cases from formal legal proceedings via negotiation, mediation, or arbitration, often in combination with legal assistance or other support. When landlords and tenants use eviction diversion programs to reach agreements outside of formal court proceedings, court dockets lighten and judges adjudicate more legally weighty cases. Eviction diversion programs can make the process more equitable and foster greater trust in the legal system.
Short-Term and Long-term Financial Subsidy Programs
Short-term financial assistance programs are the least expensive policy intervention for preventing homelessness (compared with housing vouchers, transitional housing and emergency homeless shelters). Examples of short-term financial assistance include emergency rental assistance, security deposit assistance, utility payment assistance, etc. Though these solutions don’t provide the holistic support that is often necessary to prevent homelessness to those most at risk of homelessness, short-term financial assistance can be vital to households experiencing circumstantial hardships that are making it difficult to pay their bills.
Examples of short-term financial assistance include emergency rental assistance, security deposit assistance, utility payment assistance, etc.
The leading cause of homelessness is insufficient income and a lack of affordable housing. The HUD Family Options Study concluded that long-term deep housing subsidies — primarily the Housing Choice Voucher — were the most effective in reducing homelessness among families. Long-term rental housing subsidies encourage family and individual self-sufficiency, leading to positive improvements in many facets of life in addition to providing stable housing to those at risk of becoming homeless; such strategies can cause improvements in food security, family income, child well-being, and reduced intimate partner violence. The production of new affordable housing units is also vital to preserving low rents in cities, so cities should strive to incentivize the development of housing to increase housing supply.
What’s Next for Cities?
With the cost of housing continuing to rise across the country, it is imperative that cities bolster homelessness prevention activities to better support those at risk of becoming homeless. Cities can:
- Implement eviction diversion activities, including enacting right to counsel, just-cause eviction programs, and mediation services to provide tenants with necessary support to protect themselves against eviction court proceedings.
- Prioritize funding for short-term financial assistance programs, such as emergency rental assistance and utility payment assistance. These programs tend to be relatively low-cost to local governments (compared to emergency services) and provide the first level of financial support to those in vulnerable financial circumstances, which could otherwise lead to eviction.
- Bolster new housing production, including project-based affordable housing developments, to increase the supply of both market rate and affordable housing units. New supply, coupled with tenant-based rental assistance programs, can help meet the need for affordable housing and address the root causes of eviction and homelessness.