Homelessness prevention is a set of strategies to help low-income households resolve a housing crisis that would otherwise lead to homelessness. A prevention program may stabilize a household in their current housing or help them to move into new housing without first entering shelter or experiencing homelessness. Strategies may include financial assistance, legal assistance, housing stabilization services, and other interventions used singularly or in combination. The more coordinated and well-targeted the prevention program is the more likely it is to reduce the number of people who experience homelessness.
Problem or Challenge:
Ending homelessness requires effective and well-targeted strategies to stop families and individuals from becoming homeless. Most people can successfully avoid homelessness if they get the right help at the right time. A small amount of assistance is often enough to prevent an episode of homelessness and the cost of prevention is usually much less than the cost of shelter and other services people need when they experience homelessness. Prevention diminishes the trauma and dislocation caused by homelessness. When effective, homelessness prevention programs reduce the demand for homeless shelters.
As part of a community’s homelessness assistance system, prevention programs serve vulnerable individuals and families who are at imminent risk of becoming homeless (i.e., entering shelter or transitional housing or living in cars or on the street). The goal is to help the household resolve their crisis, secure short-term financial or rental assistance as needed, and access ongoing sources of support in the community in order to remain housed. If the individual or family is unable to stay in their existing housing, the prevention program helps the household to find a safe, reasonably affordable and adequate, alternative housing arrangement.
Homelessness prevention programs are usually designed to use available resources to offer time-limited assistance to a large number of families and individuals. The assistance may not be enough to cover all needs, but can often act as a means to leverage other income and supports and permit the recipients to remain housed. In some cases a homelessness prevention program is structured to provide deeper assistance to a defined population, such as persons being discharged from prisons, hospitals, or foster care, to prevent them from experiencing homelessness.
Time-limited homelessness prevention programs are not the only way to prevent homelessness. Some long-term interventions have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing the likelihood that families and individuals with significant needs will enter or return to homelessness. Rental housing assistance is the most direct and effective tool to prevent homelessness; it has been shown to be highly effective in helping people with extremely low incomes retain housing. For households with long histories of homelessness and the greatest barriers to stability, permanent supportive housing has proven effective in preventing returns to homelessness.
Effective homelessness prevention programs are based on a set of core strategies.
1. Targeting those most likely to become homeless without assistance. The majority of households that experience a housing crisis such as eviction, even those with very low incomes, will not end up experiencing homelessness. There is no proven way to reliably predict which at-risk households are most likely to become homeless without assistance. There are, however, promising strategies that communities have developed, including these:
Providing diversion assistance to households seeking shelter. By offering prevention services “at the front door” of shelter, some communities have found they can help many households who would otherwise enter shelter maintain their current housing situation or, when that is not possible, quickly relocate to an alternate housing option. The implication of this targeting is that the prevention response must be immediate to prevent loss of housing.
Using the community’s shelter data to match prevention targeting to the profiles of people who are actually experiencing homelessness. This can be done by using HMIS data or surveying people in shelter to compare the profiles of people served by the local prevention program to that of people in shelters and adjusting prevention program targeting criteria accordingly.
In Philadelphia, researchers used HMIS data on the zip code of last permanent address prior to homelessness to determine that families living in certain neighborhoods were at much higher risk of entering homeless shelters. The city then used this data to inform its targeting and outreach strategies for homelessness prevention assistance.
Alameda County, California, conducted a study looking at its HMIS data and conducting interviews with families in shelter. The County realized that its typical homelessness prevention programs probably did not prevent homelessness or reach the people most likely to become homeless. They concluded that they should target limited prevention and rapid re-housing resources to those staying with friends and family, staying in hotels and motels using their own resources, receiving TANF, or losing their housing subsidies, or people with other risk factors in addition to rent arrears.
Developing outreach programs that identify people at greatest risk who normally would not seek assistance. Outreach efforts use collaboration with other agencies serving vulnerable people to identify households at heightened risk of experiencing homelessness. The early identification of these households allows the partnering agencies to quickly intervene to help preserve their current housing or to focus on finding new housing so the household can avoid a shelter stay. Schools, healthcare providers, and child welfare agencies can all function as early warning systems. Staff from these systems can provide referrals and help people make connections to homelessness prevention assistance when they encounter families living in untenable or hazardous housing situations.
Some prevention programs have formed partnerships with public housing authorities to reach out to families who are at risk of eviction to help them preserve their subsidized housing. While very few families with permanent affordable housing become homeless, families whose assistance is terminated may be at very high risk of experiencing homelessness and may find it difficult to qualify for affordable housing again.
Discharge planning: Homelessness prevention programs should work with hospitals, mental health treatment facilities, foster care agencies, Veterans Affairs Medical Centers, jails, and prisons to connect people exiting institutions who are at high risk of homelessness with housing search and stabilization services.
2. Coordinated entry. Prevention programs should be connected to a community or region-wide coordinated entry system that determines household eligibility and refers eligible households to the program. Coordinated entry allows households to quickly access the services they need without having to call multiple programs. It can also help to understand the household’s needs before they enter a program and that they are referred to interventions that are best suited to their needs. It ensures that clear and consistent decisions are being made about how to best utilize a community’s prevention resources. Because it is critical to act quickly to prevent the imminent loss of housing, many communities centralize the administration of financial assistance and short-term rental assistance for prevention and rapid re-housing programs to provide an efficient, cost-effective means of deploying funds.
3. Housing focus. Housing stability is the primary goal of homelessness prevention. The key to successful prevention is identifying those barriers related to retaining existing housing and finding ways to eliminate or compensate for those barriers. Household problems that are not directly related to housing are addressed only if and when the participant chooses.
4. Housing-based assessment and plan. Once referred, households are quickly assessed to identify barriers to retaining their current housing or, if they must relocate, any problems that are likely to cause a household’s rental application to be rejected by a landlord. Effective prevention systems use a common assessment tool which may be embedded in HMIS, such as the Housing and Financial Assessment used by Priority Home Partnership in Alameda County. The assessment is used to identify housing barriers and determine what is necessary, relevant, and immediate for the household to keep their housing or secure new housing (such as financial assistance) and to identify the household’s service and financial assistance needs.
Based on the assessment, a prevention assistance plan is developed collaboratively between the program staff and the household to lay out next steps and set expectations for how long the program will be available to the household. The plan focuses on eliminating this risk to this household at this time. The intensity of the intervention is designed to match and not exceed the need. Households are empowered to make their own choices about housing and services and to respond to the consequences of those decisions.
5. Housing negotiation, mediation, and counseling. When possible, prevention programs seek to help families remain in their existing housing if it is safe. This may include mediation to resolve conflicts with family members or friends with whom they are living or landlord-tenant mediation if the household is the primary tenant. Programs may offer counseling about other housing options that could provide alternatives to entering shelter. The goal is to try to negotiate the terms by which a household can stay in or return to housing, even for a limited period. As part of this process, the program may agree to provide the household with training in money management or other household skills, offer some financial assistance, or help to connect the household to needed services.
In some cases, mediation to preserve tenancy is done in tandem with housing courts, which refer the household to specialized workers who act as intermediaries between the landlord and tenant to address lease violations that might otherwise result in loss of housing through eviction. For people with disabilities, the workers may negotiate with the parties to develop a reasonable accommodation plan, which may include a service plan and coordination with appropriate organizations to deliver supports.
6. Financial assistance. Prevention programs often provide one-time financial assistance to help participants keep their housing or relocate to new housing. This may include payment of rent or utility arrearages, transportation for housing search, first and last month’s rent, security deposit, application fees, and help with moving costs and utility connections. Some programs provide financial incentives to landlords to rent to families with challenging rental histories, such as additional months of rent upfront or doubling the security deposit. Having at least one source of funds that can be used flexibly allows some prevention programs to adapt their assistance to the specific, immediate needs of each household.
Some prevention programs will provide short-term rental assistance to avert the loss of existing housing or help the household with new housing. The subsidy is as short and shallow as possible, and is often structured as a flat subsidy or a declining subsidy that reduces in steps over a set period of time.
Prevention programs usually seek to provide the minimum financial assistance and services necessary for housing stabilization and to make additional assistance available only when there is a clear demonstration of need.
7. Relocation assistance. When households cannot remain in their current housing, the prevention program works with the household to find an apartment in the private market with a focus on safety and proximity to the children’s school, support networks—including relatives, friends, church, and familiar surroundings, and employment opportunities. To streamline access to housing, prevention programs continuously search for the most affordable housing options in the community and cultivate relationships with landlords.
8. Housing stabilization supports. A prevention plan can include actions and supports to overcome or minimize recurrent, significant barriers to retaining housing. Development of this aspect of the plan between the household and the program’s case manager or advocate occurs only when desired and needed and after the immediate housing crisis has been resolved. Staff members ensure that households have a basic understanding of their rights and responsibilities as a tenant and those of the landlord.
Prevention program staff needs to be knowledgeable about mainstream programs and services in the community so they can proactively offer help and make connections for households needing that assistance to stabilize. This may include help in increasing income, reducing expenses, budgeting for emergencies, repairing credit, and referrals for health, mental health, and substance abuse services. While waiting lists for Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers and other permanent rental subsidies are often very long, effective prevention programs assist households in applying for every type of subsidy for which the household qualifies, even if there is a waiting list. To increase household income, programs also work to link participants to employment services and work supports and assist them in applying for every public benefit program for which they qualify, including SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, EITC, SSI/SSDI, energy assistance, and other programs.
While most households only need linkages to community organizations, some may need more intensive home visits.
9. Developing a coordinated approach to preventing homelessness. Effective community-wide efforts to prevent homelessness involve partnering among nonprofit organizations and public agencies to address the variety of issues and housing barriers confronted by households facing homelessness and to address the needs of different subpopulations, including families, domestic violence survivors, youth, and individuals exiting institutions. Collaborating across sectors is critical to creating a network of resources that work together to achieve the goal of preventing homelessness. Successful prevention programs develop close partnerships with agencies and programs they need most urgently or most often. These partnerships may be informal one-on-one coordination between the staff of the agencies or formal written agreements that outline roles, processes, and data sharing protocols.
Homelessness prevention as a practice was expanded nationwide with the launch of the Recovery Act’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) between 2009 and 2012. Homelessness prevention programs have not been rigorously studied on a large-scale basis.
Much remains to be learned as to what specific mechanisms are successful in averting homelessness, for whom, and how best to target limited resources. Prevention programs that have tracked entry into homelessness by participating households through their HMIS systems have found very low rates of subsequent entry into shelter. A control group of similar households who do not receive the assistance is needed to be clear about the proportion of households receiving assistance that would have actually become homeless without it.
Some homelessness prevention programs target assistance to families facing eviction, but research shows that without assistance, many of these families would not have become homeless. A detailed study in New York by researcher Mary Beth Shinn and colleagues found that only 20 percent of families that received eviction notices went on to become homeless, and only 22 percent of families entering homeless shelters had ever had an eviction (1). A Boston Foundation study compared results for households who received one-time rental assistance with those who were turned down because the program was out of funds. The research found that while 79 percent of people who received assistance retained their housing, 71% of people who did not receive assistance also retained housing (2).
Strategies for Preventing Homelessness, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, May 2005. Authors: Martha Burt, et al, The Urban Institute, Washington, D.C.
Homelessness Prevention: Creating Programs that Work, The National Alliance to End Homelessness, July 2009. Washington, D.C.
Closing the Front Door: Creating a Successful Diversion Program for Homeless Families, The National Alliance to End Homelessness, August 2011. Washington, DC.
'A prevention-centered approach to homelessness assistance: a paradigm shift?', Housing Policy Debate, 21: 2, 295 — 315, May 2011. Authors: Culhane, Dennis P. , Metraux, Stephen and Byrne, Thomas
Evidence-based practice: Rental Housing Assistance
Promising Practice: Coordinated Entry
Promising practice: Rapid re-housing
Promising practice: Streamlining Access to Housing
Promising practice: Housing Stabilization Support
Model Program: Family Homelessness Prevention and Assistance Program, (Hennepin County, MN)
Model Program: Homebase, (New York, NY)
Model Program: Homeless Action Response Team (Norfolk, VA)
Model Program: Landlord Liaison Project, (Seattle, WA)
Model Program: Tenancy Preservation Program of Massachusetts
1. Shinn, M. and J. Baumohl. 2001. The Prevention of Homelessness Revisited.
2. Friedman, D. H., J. Raymond, et al. (2007). Preventing Homelessness and Promoting Housing Stability: A Comparative Analysis. Understanding Boston. Boston, The Boston Foundation; The Center for Social Policy, McCormack Graduate School at University of Massachusetts Boston.