Rearranging the Deck Chairs or Reallocating the Lifeboats? Homelessness Assistance and Its Alternatives

Dennis P. Culhane and Stephen Metraux

December 2008

At present, homelessness in the United States is primarily addressed by providing emergency and transitional shelter facilities. These programs do not directly address the causes of homelessness, and residents are exposed to victimization and trauma during stays. Communities need an alternative that is more humane, as well as more cost-efficient and effective at achieving outcomes. This article uses research on homelessness to devise alternative forms of emergency assistance that could reduce the prevalence and/or duration of episodes of homelessness and much of the need for emergency shelter. Researchers review analyses of shelter utilization patterns to identify subgroups of homeless single adults and families with minor children, and propose alternative program models aimed at the particular situations of each of these subgroups. This paper argues that it would be both more efficient and more humane to reallocate resources currently devoted to shelters. It  proposes the development of community-based programs that instead would focus on helping those with housing emergencies to remain housed or to quickly return to housing, and be served by mainstream social welfare programs. The researchers recommend providing shelter on a limited basis and reserving transitional housing for individuals recently discharged from institutions. Chronic homelessness should be addressed by permanent supportive housing. Changing existing shelter-based responses to homelessness could produce better outcomes for homeless individuals and families.

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