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A Reason to be Hopeful About Solving Chronic Homelessness

Valasandra Hightower, 18 July 2023

I recently traveled to Berkeley, California and Boston, Massachusetts, for work. I had visited both cities prior to the pandemic but noticed some stark differences this time. In Berkeley, unhoused people were on every block all day and night. But in Boston, I did not see a single homeless person; not in the city streets, not on the metro. There are reasons for this difference. Central to the different outcomes is that these two cities took vastly different approaches to addressing the homeless crisis. Lessons learned in Boston a decade ago are only now being realized in other major cities in the United States (US), potentially opening the door to a long-term strategy for eliminating chronic homelessness in the country.

Chronic homelessness is a familiar social issue in most major cities throughout America. The definition of chronic homelessness evolved over several years (2012 – 2015) and is complex due to its intended role in precise legal interpretations. Generally, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers an individual to be chronically homeless if they have a disability and live in a place not designed for human habitation or an emergency shelter for more than one year (NLIHC). The necessity of such a precise legal definition underscores the urgency of the social issue, which had grown increasingly severe during each of the four years leading up to the SARS-CoV-2 (a.k.a. COVID-19) virus (Fraieli). By April 2020, lockdowns and other emergency orders (e.g., social distancing, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements) associated with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue, deepening the already-severe crisis by placing additional constraints on the myriad social programs in place to assist the unhoused population across the country. As reported at the time, “prior to the pandemic, the rate of homelessness was already consistently worsening and setting milestones” (Fraieli). In Berkeley, the Bay Area Community Services (BACS) reported that their homeless shelters were required to operate at reduced capacity to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The lack of beds at homeless shelters compounded an acute lack of transitional housing, stretching the city’s social programs past their limits (Wohl). Transitional housing is distinct from homeless shelters as they are typically temporary apartments in a complex that offers additional services such as mental health counseling and addiction recovery support, and in some cases, skill training. The purpose of transitional housing is to act as a path back to permanent affordable housing. Homeless shelters, on the other hand, are group shelters often run by non-profits or religious organizations, with the intent of providing an alternative to sleeping outdoors. Group shelters typically do not offer any services other than beds and meals, providing no path to permanent housing. In Berkeley, local journalists reported that the city took advantage of a State of California program dubbed “Project Roomkey,” which mitigated the scarceness of homeless shelters by using federal, state, and county emergency funds to open temporary shelters and rent rooms for unhoused individuals at unoccupied hotels (Dinkelspiel). The availability of this program and substantial pressure from “No Vacancy,” (a short-lived grassroots organization), compelled many cities to participate (Walker). This had the unfortunate effect of forcing cities to table their need to solve the broader problem of a lack of transitional housing by focusing on short-term solutions provided by the state.

At the time, California considered its initiative to be a wild success, and proponents of the plan stated the intention of enabling caseworkers to place participants into supportive housing after the pandemic (Walker). The reality for Berkeley and other participating cities was that the effectiveness of the program was severely limited and short-lived. Although the city’s priority had shifted toward providing permanent affordable housing, the emergency funding ran out as the pandemic gradually subsided. Berkeley officials indicated that federal or state funds were necessary for providing permanent housing options, but while those funds were available, the city did not qualify for them. Therefore, only short-term measures were possible at the time (Wohl). It was later reported that the net effect of the state initiative was negligible, with few participants finding long-term housing, and many never connecting with a caseworker. “Some of the biggest counties with the largest number of homeless individuals – like San Diego, Sacramento, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles – have had the lowest success rate for placing individuals in permanent housing” (Hayden). Despite the influx of federal emergency funds, the crisis remained unabated due to the pressure from the state to focus on short-term strategies.

On the opposite coast, a different story was unfolding. A retrospective report highlights the city of Boston as one of the few places in the country that resisted the trend of increased homelessness both during and after the pandemic (Zokovitch). The reason for this is rooted in an ambitious pre-pandemic plan that the city implemented to solve its ongoing veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness crisis. In their action plan, the city recognized a lack of coordination among its patchwork of organizations and offices working on different aspects of the homelessness problem. They responded by creating a centralized infrastructure to align all efforts to end homelessness in the city. The plan provided triage services to get unhoused persons into housing immediately, (a “Housing First” policy). Afterward, the city would follow up by coordinating additional services to stabilize the household and move individuals toward permanent housing (Task Force 15). The flexibility and agility built into the system enabled the city to de-concentrate homeless shelters during the pandemic without stressing the supply of available housing. The post-pandemic statistics speak for themselves: Homelessness in Boston declined prior to the pandemic and continues to decline after the pandemic. (Zokovitch) In stark contrast to the rest of America, Boston proved that their plan was a success by adhering to it throughout the pandemic.

Due to the long-term failure of other pandemic-era homelessness mitigation efforts, the increased severity of the unhoused crisis forced other major cities in the country to finally recognize that the only long-term solution to the crisis is to combine Housing First policies with coordinated efforts to connect the unhoused with permanent housing. A recent RAND report found that although most of the unhoused population in Los Angeles is interested in finding housing, they are turning down many options, citing unfulfilled needs for safety and privacy and a strong preference for permanent living situations over temporary ones (Ward 9). Toward the end of the pandemic, the State of California has since followed up their controversial “Project Roomkey” with a more forward-thinking “Homekey” strategy to convert closed hotels into permanent affordable housing (Reid et al. 3), and New York City has since followed suit with its Hotel-to-Housing bill, partnering with the Hotel Trades Council Union to convert failed hotels into permanent apartments to alleviate the housing crisis in the city. The specific intent of the hotel conversions is to create affordable housing in the city, although, “in addition to affordable housing, Adams said he envisions converting hotels into ‘supportive housing’ for the homeless population, which grew during the pandemic” (Sommerfeldt). Despite a lingering notion in political circles that focusing on temporary shelter is the only viable strategy for solving the crisis, Los Angeles appears to have also aligned with other major cities by creating “a new homelessness department, which is supposed to centralize authority and create more accountability to speed up efforts to get people off the streets” (Ward). That language could almost have come straight from Boston’s 2015 action plan.

The pandemic has tested a variety of strategies for combating homelessness in major cities. While Boston’s approach has proven effective, it is still unclear whether the strategies that work in one city can be successfully implemented in another. Although it is too early to have statistics indicating the impact of these new efforts, it is reasonable to expect these cities will find similar results to Boston’s ongoing efforts. The coming years should provide comparative statistics reinforcing specific strategies and disproving others. The long-term financial viability of these efforts may show more potential than the short-sighted emergency housing initiatives implemented during the pandemic. Supposing a standard, proven framework for addressing chronic homelessness evolves from the individual efforts of these major cities, one might speculate that eliminating homelessness in the United States is a tractable problem. Boston’s results indicate this may be true if governments provide enough space for cities to explore further trial and error. Even if an experimental social program fails, it can provide valuable data to inform future efforts. The current trend of city and state governments trying new approaches to address this crisis is warranted and long overdue. Perhaps there is hope on the horizon.

Works Cited

Dinkelspiel, Frances. “Berkeley Homeless Shelter Closed After Resident Tests Positive for COVID-19.” Berkeleyside, 22 April 2020.

Fraieli, Andrew. “A Recently Released Report Shows Homelessness Rising Even Before the Pandemic Hits, and Federal Sources Still Aren’t Sure of the Effects the Pandemic Has Had on the Crisis.” The Homeless Voice, 22 March 2021.

Hayden, Nicole. “Project Roomkey Funding Ends Soon. Over 11,000 Californians Could Become Homeless, Again.” Desert Sun, 30 October 2020.

National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). “HUD Publishes Final Rule on Definition of ‘Chronic Homelessness’.” On the Home Front, 7 December 2015.

Task Force on Individual Homelessness. “Boston’s Way Home: An Action Plan to End Chronic and Veteran Homelessness in Boston.” City of Boston Mayor’s Office, 2015.

Reid, Carolina et al. “California’s Homekey Program: Unlocking Housing Opportunities for People Experiencing Homelessness.” Terner Center for Housing Innovation (UC Berkeley), 17 March 2022.

Sommerfeldt, Chris. “Gov. Hochul Signs NYC Hotel-to-Housing Conversion Bill in Boost for Mayor Adams and City Residents.” New York Daily News, 7 June 2022.

Walker, Alissa. “California Could House Its Entire Homeless Population in Empty Hotel Rooms Right Now.” Curbed, 22 April 2020.

Ward, Ethan. “LA Mayoral Candidates Want More Group Shelters, But Research Reveals it’s Not a Popular Option Among the Unhoused.” LAist, 4 May 2022.

Ward, Jason M., et al. “Recent Trends Among the Unsheltered in Three Los Angeles Neighborhoods: An Interim Report on the Los Angeles Longitudinal Enumeration and Demographic Survey (LA LEADS) Project.” RAND Corporation, 2022.

Wohl, Alexander. “Berkeley Shelters Continue to Operate at Reduced Pandemic Capacity.” The Daily Californian, 23 November 2021.

Zokovitch, Grace. “Boston Homelessness Continues Downward Trend.” Boston Herald, 22 June 2022.

© 2024 Valasandra Hightower