Homelessness prevention

Homelessness prevention can be approached in two ways. One–the more enduring path to ending homelessness–is to fix the systemic problems that cause it: social inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity, and the failures of the social safety net. This research brief focuses on the more short-term approach to prevention: intervening with people experiencing crises before they show up at the shelter door.

When designing prevention efforts, communities should consider both the effectiveness of various approaches to helping people maintain stable housing and the efficiency of these efforts. Efficiency means getting services to people who would benefit the most. Statistical screening models can help take some of the guesswork out of determining which vulnerable households will actually become homeless so that the community’s prevention resources are not wasted. Studies indicate that prevention is most effective when given to people at highest risk.

Permanent deep rental housing subsidies such as those provided through the Housing Choice Voucher program have been shown to be highly effective in preventing homelessness. Some communities have prioritized those most vulnerable to homelessness for assistance – for example, public housing authorities may allow homeless families to move to the head of the waiting list for housing subsidies.

Eviction prevention programs and community-based services also have evidence of effectiveness. Modest financial assistance provided by an eviction prevention program in Chicago helped renters avoid entering shelters. Community-based prevention services are broader in scope and offer a comprehensive array of services such as short-term financial assistance to cover rent or rental arrears, mediation with landlords, and help with the process of qualifying for mainstream benefits. New York City’s HomeBase program is an example of this approach that has demonstrated strong evidence of effectiveness.

People often become homeless after they exit systems that have provided them with a place to stay, including foster care, prisons, hospitals, or military active duty. Proactive screening of populations at heightened risk of homelessness can be an effective way to provide targeted support and help individuals and families maintain stable housing. The Department of Veterans Affairs has implemented such a tool for people receiving outpatient services from the Veterans Health Administration.

What are the implications for policymakers and practitioners?

Strengthening the social safety net would be a key first step to preventing homelessness. In the absence of broader reforms –

  • Consider adopting programs that follow the HomeBase model, adapted to local conditions, to provide outreach and services through program offices located close to where people live.
  • Ensure that supportive services intended to help people maintain stable housing are easily accessible and targeted to address the specific needs of people in the community.
  • Research the effectiveness of various housing subsidy models to prevent homelessness, because this important knowledge is lacking. While it may not be feasible to provide permanent deep subsidies to at-risk households, consider providing shallow permanent subsidies that can help people maintain stable housing and evaluating the programs’ efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Examine eviction prevention programs to determine whether more can be done locally to ensure households facing eviction have access to legal representation, mediation services, and financial assistance that can help them remain stably housed.
  • Conduct program evaluations at the community level, in addition to the individual level, to ensure that homelessness is prevented and not simply reallocated to those who do not receive assistance.
  • Update predictive models on an ongoing basis as conditions change.

Read the full research brief to see the underlying research evidence.

Last updated November 2018