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Strategies for Preventing Homelessness

Martha R. Burt, Carol Pearson, Ann Elizabeth Montgomery
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Document date: February 09, 2006
Released online: February 09, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.

Prepared for: Office of Policy Development and Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development


Homelessness prevention is an essential element of any effort to end homelessness either locally or nationwide. To close the front door of entry into homelessness, the central challenge of prevention is targeting our efforts toward those people that will become homeless without the intervention. Providing prevention assistance to people who would not otherwise become homeless is an inefficient use of limited homelessness dollars.

In 2003, HUD contracted with Walter R. McDonald & Associates, Inc., and its subcontractor, the Urban Institute, to conduct an exploratory study to identify communities that have implemented effective and well-targeted community-wide homelessness prevention activities. The study documents these approaches in six communities with the hope that other communities might learn how to carry out similar efforts.

This study suggests that a number of elements contribute to homelessness prevention and a number of promising prevention activities exist. The study identifies elements of community homelessness prevention strategies that seem to lead to reductions in the number of people who otherwise would become homeless. The contributing elements include targeting through control of the eligibility screening process; developing community motivation; maximizing mainstream and private resources; fostering leadership; and ensuring the availability and structure of data and information used to track progress, improve on prevention efforts, and facilitate outcomebased contracting. Evidence from the six communities studied indicates that those employing the most elements seem to be more successful at prevention and better able to document their achievements.

Within the context of the aforementioned elements, the study identified four promising homelessness prevention activities that may be used alone or in combination as part of a coherent community-wide strategy: (1) supportive services coupled with permanent housing, particularly when combined with effective discharge from institutions, especially mental hospitals; (2) mediation in Housing Courts; (3) cash assistance for rent or mortgage arrears; and (4) rapid exit from shelter.

This study provides insight into approaches that will help prevent homelessness. It is an important contribution to our understanding of how to help homeless Americans.

Alphonso Jackson



Every day in the United States, families and single adults who have never been homeless lose their housing and enter a shelter or find themselves on the streets. No matter how effective services are to help people leave homelessness, reducing homelessness or ending it completely requires stopping these families and individuals from becoming homeless. Policies and activities capable of preventing new cases, often described as "closing the front door" to homelessness, are as important to ending homelessness as services that help those who are already homeless to reenter housing (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2000).

Most communities in the United States offer a range of activities to prevent homelessness. The most widespread activities provide assistance to avert housing loss for households facing eviction. Other activities focus on moments when people are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, such as at discharge from institutional settings (e.g., mental hospitals, jails, and prisons). Given that the causes and conditions of becoming homeless are often multifaceted, communities use a variety of strategies to prevent homelessness.

By definition, the intent of prevention is to stop something from happening. The worse the effects of what one is trying to prevent, the more important it is to develop effective prevention strategies, and the more one is willing to accept partial prevention if complete prevention is not possible.

Homelessness is a very undesirable condition, both for the people it affects and for society in general. The effects of homelessness on children, for example, make it easy to see why many communities offer interventions to help keep families with children in housing. Compared to poor, housed children, homeless children have worse health (more asthma, upper respiratory infections, minor skin ailments, gastrointestinal ailments, parasites, and chronic physical disorders), more developmental delays, more anxiety, depression and behavior problems, poorer school attendance and performance, and other negative conditions (Buckner, 2004; Shinn and Weitzman, 1996). There are also indications that negative effects increase the longer homelessness continues, including more health problems (possibly from living in congregate shelters or in cars and other places not meant for habitation) and more mental health symptoms of anxiety, depression, and acting out brought about by the disruptions in routines, relationships, and environments that homelessness entails (Buckner, 2004).

Even housing instability negatively impacts children. Analyses of the National Health Interview Survey show strong associations between moving three or more times and increased behavioral, emotional, and school problems (Shinn and Weitzman, 1996), even when poverty does not complicate the picture. These findings suggest that even if families receiving prevention assistance would not become literally homeless without assistance, reducing the number of times they move may be worth the investment of paying rent, mortgage, or utility arrearages.

Effects of homelessness on parents in homeless families are similar to those of their children, with the exception of school-related problems (Shinn and Weitzman, 1996). The effects of homelessness on single adults are also grim. Homeless individuals report poor health (37 percent versus 21 percent for poor housed adults), and are more likely to have life-threatening contagious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS (Weinreb, Gelberg, Arangua, and Sullivan, 2004).

The risk of homelessness is relatively high among poor households in the United States. About one in 10 poor adults and children experience homelessness every year (Burt, Aron, and Lee, 2001; Culhane, Dejowski, Ibanez, Needham and Maccia, 1994; Link, Susser, Stueve, Phelan, Moore, and Struening. 1994, 1995). Homelessness exacerbates the negative effects of extreme poverty on families and individuals.

The litany of negative effects of homelessness makes it easy to see why a community would want to prevent it. But being convinced that action is needed and knowing what action to take are two different things. Despite the theoretical importance of prevention as the only intentional practice that will reduce the number of new cases of homelessness, public funders are often reluctant to invest in homelessness prevention strategies. In part, this reluctance stems from fear that funds could benefit people other than those likely to become homeless, thereby diluting the already limited public resources committed to homeless people, or invested in activities that have not been proven effective to prevent homelessness.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Families and Parenting | Health/Healthcare | Housing

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