The blog of the Urban Institute
December 1, 2020

A Biden Administration Could Mark a Return to Evidence-Based Homelessness Policies

December 1, 2020

When president-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January, he is expected to bring a major shift in policymaking strategies, including in the federal response to homelessness. First, it’s likely the Biden administration would act immediately to extend the federal eviction moratorium and support a stimulus package intended to prevent a wave of evictions. Further, Biden’s housing proposals during his campaign signal that homelessness policies under the next administration could return to evidence-based strategies that have largely been disregarded by the current administration.

In October, the Trump administration released a new Federal Strategic Plan (PDF) to respond to homelessness, which signaled a departure from strategies adopted by previous administrations and Congresses of both parties. The plan indicated a shift away from the evidence-based Housing First program model, which has proven to be effective at ending homelessness for individuals and at lowering rates of homelessness in communities. Instead, the new plan favors homelessness responses such as transitional housing and law enforcement responses, which studies have shown are not effective at ending homelessness or at improving the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

The Trump administration also removed fair housing protections (PDF) and consistently proposed cuts to budgets for affordable housing and community development programs that help prevent people from experiencing homelessness.

The plan Biden released during his campaign for investing in communities through housing, as well as his actions as former vice president and senator, show that his administration plans to return to an emphasis on evidence-based solutions to homelessness and a commitment to increasing access to and protections for people in affordable housing. Biden’s housing plan proposes several solutions to homelessness and housing instability that are supported by evidence:

  • Provide a Housing Choice Voucher to every eligible family. Only one in five people eligible for federal housing assistance receive it because the Housing Choice Voucher Program doesn’t have enough funding. This leaves households one economic strain—such as a decrease in work hours, a health emergency, or a broken-down vehicle—away from a housing crisis that could lead to homelessness. Housing subsidies have been shown (PDF) to end homelessness for families, keep families housed, increase food security, improve adult and child well-being, and decrease child separations and domestic violence. Fully funding the Housing Choice Voucher Program would ensure all eligible families have access to a home they can afford.
  • Ensure federal housing programs use a Housing First approach to ending homelessness. The Trump administration stepped back from what the evidence shows: Housing First ends homelessness. Programs that take a Housing First approach to ending homelessness, including permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing, have been shown to help people exit and not return to homelessness. Studies of permanent supportive housing show it helps people experiencing long-term homelessness (including for those with disabilities and other complex needs who cycle in and out of institutions such as jails and hospitals) remain housed, improve their well-being, and lower public costs. Permanent supportive housing also improves family child welfare outcomes. Studies of rapid re-housing show it helps people exit sheltered and unsheltered homelessness quickly and helps people access housing in the private market without ongoing subsidy and without returning to homelessness.
  • Finish the job of ending veteran homelessness. The Obama-Biden administration made great strides in decreasing veteran homelessness by expanding the US Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program and the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. Biden’s plan calls for permanently authorizing the SSVF program, which rapidly re-housed nearly 350,000 veterans (PDF) from 2012 to 2018.
  • Protect LGBTQ people’s equal access to housing and services. In July 2020, the Trump administration proposed rolling back the 2016 Equal Access Rule, which required shelters and other homeless programs to provide equal access to all people experiencing homelessness regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people experiencing homelessness are more than twice as likely to be unsheltered than sheltered. Reasserting the 2016 Equal Access Rule and supporting this rule through other administration activities could help reduce the number of people living unsheltered by ensuring everyone has access to a shelter that doesn’t discriminate against their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Support survivors of domestic violence. A widely acknowledged advocate for survivors of domestic violence and the Violence Against Women Act, Biden has a history of working to provide survivors with housing protections. Between 22 and 57 percent of women experiencing homelessness report that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness. The Biden administration has proposed a multipronged approach to supporting survivors, including giving them housing assistance, which studies have shown drastically increases housing stability and safety (PDF) for survivors experiencing homelessness.

Strategies to address homelessness are just one part of a broader approach needed to improve access to housing in the US, including expanding affordable housing development, boosting resources for housing assistance, and targeting supportive housing services to specific groups such as older adults and people with disabilities. The incoming administration’s housing proposals suggest that it plans to focus on evidence-based policies to ensure the nation moves toward a future where all Americans have access to a safe and affordable home.

Jimmy Palmiter, 59, an Army veteran experiencing homelessness, holds his dog Fifi, while admiring the courtyard and community room during the grand opening of Potter's Lane on Febriary 8, 2017. Potter's Lane is the nation's first multi-family housing development built with recycled shipping containers to provide permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans in Midway City, California. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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