Fundamental change occurred on the issue of homelessnessover the past decade in the United States and other countries with comparable socioeconomic conditions. Both the problem of homelessness and other issues (such as the worldwide economic crisis) became more widely understood through research and data. New strategies and solutions emerged and yielded international dialogue about preventing and ending homelessness. In the last decade, the problem of modern homelessness seemed to be growing and irreversible—“intractable” was a common characterization. The last decade, however, brought key developments in research, policy, housing strategies, and service delivery that were shown through data to decrease homelessness. Active partnerships among governments of the United States, Canada, England, and Australia moved the issue and its remedy in a new direction.
This chapter provides a brief history of the contemporary issue of homelessness as well as insight into changes at work in research and policy during the last decade. Homelessness itself has not been new for over 25 years. In the 1980s, the problem was perceived at epidemic proportions, and frontline local crisis response became visible in soup kitchens and shelters nationwide. Many of those local programs endure today.
As the numbers of those experiencing homelessness continued to increase, service providers and public officials alike recognized that the problem was often complex. That perceived complexity also made solutions difficult for elected leaders to craft and made meal programs and shelters the most visible response in communities. For different profiles of people experiencing homelessness, achieving stability touches on many issues of poverty such as public assistance, wage levels, addiction, mental illness, education, and housing costs. The commonality in all homelessness is a lack of housing.
The unique safety net and welfare-state programs of national governments once seemed to define what government response was possible, making international comparisons of policy initiatives and budget investments speculative at best. But larger global economic issues are not confined by national borders, as evidenced most recently in the worldwide downturn. Peers in policy making from several national governments came to see that they had much to convey about strategies and investments targeting homelessness. Insight could be mined in peer-to-peer setting for the larger lessons that were changing the historic response in nations toward one of targeted investment and an expectation of reducing and ending homelessness.
In addition to economic crisis, natural disaster, in the form of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the United States in 2004, provided valuable lessons on new ways to organize community response for those in need. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made addressing homelessness for service members a key priority.
A significant portion of the story told here starts with the initiatives of the federal government in the United States. The events of the last decade provide a basis for this approach. It is not the case that the response to homelessness begins and ends with national government anywhere. But the degree of change in the United States during this period was driven by concrete goals, strong leadership from the public and private sectors, new investment, and consistent effort to disseminate new ideas to the field and identify those innovations that were being developed locally. Not since the first legislative response in Congress in 1987 has the federal government made such a major contribution to change on the issue.