Urban Wire Homelessness Is Solvable, But Only with Sufficient Investment in Housing
Samantha Batko, Kathryn Reynolds
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On any given night in January 2023, approximately 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness, according to the results of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time count released today. This finding represents a 12.1 percent increase in total homelessness from 2022 to 2023. Additionally, homelessness increased among those experiencing sheltered homelessness (14 percent) and unsheltered (10 percent) homelessness, as well as among people in families (16 percent), veterans (7 percent), and those experiencing chronic homelessness (12 percent).

These numbers are a jarring snapshot of the increasing housing affordability challenges Americans face and the lack of a long-term federal investment to meet the urgent need for affordable housing. This need is demonstrated not just by increased homelessness but also by multiyear increases in other measures of housing-related strain.

A record-breaking 8.53 million households were reported to be struggling with worst-case housing needs—meaning renter households with very low incomes who do not receive government housing assistance and who pay more than one-half of their income toward rent, live in severely inadequate conditions, or both. There is also a shortage of 7.3 million affordable and available homes for extremely low–income renters.

The data released today do not represent failures of the past year of homelessness response. The homelessness response system is working; it’s housing hundreds of thousands of people each year. In 2021, more than 378,000 people were served in permanent supportive housing (PSH) programs, and more than 235,000 people were served in rapid rehousing programs. From fiscal year 2021 to 2022, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported an 8 percent increase in the number of exits from homelessness to permanent housing. 

Instead, these new data represent the effects of ongoing and continuous disinvestment in affordable housing infrastructure that spans decades.

Solving homelessness is a math equation

Increases or decreases in the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given day as presented above are driven by imbalances in the number of people entering and exiting homelessness over time. Reducing homelessness requires a greater number of exits from homelessness than entries over time.

The number of people entering and exiting homelessness is driven, in large part, by the ability of people to access and maintain housing in the private rental market. Yet, worsening conditions in the private rental market are not within the control of the homelessness response system. Without enough affordable housing, people are stuck in emergency shelters or sleeping on the street with no place to go. Based on the most recently available data, people experiencing homelessness clearly struggle to access housing, with the share of households staying in a shelter for longer than six months increasing from 15.6 percent in 2019 to 22.6 percent 2021.

Investment in proven strategies decreases homelessness

Despite these trends, we know what ends homelessness: investment in permanent housing solutions. The most rigorous research to date shows that housing vouchers and PSH are the most effective tools to help people exit homelessness and remain housed. Research and past decreases in veteran homelessness show that when investments are sufficient, population-level decreases in homelessness are possible.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, investments in proven solutions to prevent homelessness and evictions likely prevented large increases in homelessness. At the outset of the pandemic, an economist at Columbia University estimated that, without government intervention, the number of people experiencing homelessness could increase to more than 800,000 people, a 40 to 45 percent increase.

Instead, the resources funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) kept people housed and helped people avoid eviction and homelessness.

  • The Emergency Housing Voucher program through ARPA, designed for and targeted to people experiencing homelessness and at risk of homelessness, has provided more than 60,000 households with permanent housing in the private rental market to date.
  • The CARES Act allocated $4 billion through the Emergency Solutions Grant-CV program and $5 billion through the Community Development Block Grant-CV program that helped minimize transmission of COVID-19 in modified shelter programs and provided emergency rent assistance to keep people housed and rehouse those experiencing homelessness.
  • Using the $46 billion in emergency rental assistance allocated through ARPA and the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, local governments made more than 9.7 million payments to renter households through September 2022. According to an analysis by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, the combined support of pandemic-era eviction protections—such as the national eviction moratorium, local eviction protections, and emergency rental assistance—lead to at least 800,000 fewer evictions filed in 2020 and 2021.

These investments meant that homelessness remained relatively flat between 2020 and 2022. But these investments have ended or are ending, and without continued investment in solutions at scale, homelessness and other measures of housing instability and stress will increase.

The path forward

Ending the affordable housing crisis and homelessness in the US requires Congress to fund a comprehensive affordable housing plan that includes a universal voucher program to support exits from and prevent entries into homelessness. In addition to universal vouchers, this plan could include the following:

  • preserving the supply of low-cost and subsidized housing
  • supporting affordability through income and tax credits, such as the child tax credit
  • enacting minimum eviction protections for all renters—such as just cause eviction laws that protect renters from unnecessary and discriminatory displacement—and legal counsel resources for all tenants facing eviction filings

In the meantime, critical investments are needed to decrease homelessness and support people experiencing homelessness today. Policymakers can work to minimize barriers for people experiencing homelessness in the private market through expanded waivers in the Housing Choice Voucher program to match those in the Emergency Housing Voucher program, support master-leasing efforts, and minimize income source discrimination.

In the absence of large-scale increases to the voucher program, policymakers should consider targeted increases to people at particular risk of homelessness, including young people aging out of foster care, pregnant people, and parents with young children. Lastly, policymakers can focus on decreasing barriers to and increasing safety in emergency shelter and housing programs and finding ways for mainstream federal programs to better identify and support people experiencing and at risk of homelessness.


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Research Areas Housing
Tags Federal housing programs and policies Homelessness Housing affordability Housing stability Housing vouchers and mobility Impact of crises on housing
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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