Public Policy Forum Blog

Useful strategies but no easy answers in ending homelessness

A new study from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) examines the costs of serving homeless individuals and families and explores cost-saving possibilities in differentiating services according to individual characteristics.

HUD finds that different types of first-time homeless individuals and families use system resources differently, so some opportunities exist to improve outcomes by developing tailored strategies to meet the needs of each type of individual and family. For example, the report describes how African American families are often homeless primarily due to poverty rather than mental illness or substance abuse, and therefore need permanent housing but not substantial supportive services. Similarly, childless single women have different needs than families.

Despite HUD’s support for tailored services, its cost analysis revealed that there are no loopholes or easy answers when it comes to cost savings. The study found that significant cost reductions are only achievable when targeting the few individuals and families with high levels of involvement in mainstream systems prior to homelessness. Accordingly, while narrowly targeted initiatives aimed at this group will yield the greatest savings-per-person, such initiatives would only be appropriate for a small number of people.

HUD's study was released as Milwaukee is considering its new ten-year plan to end homelessness. The County Board has already endorsed the plan, and so has a Common Council committee. If fully adopted, Milwaukee will join more than 800 cities and counties that have partnered in implementing at least 355 ten-year plans to end homelessness.

Milwaukee’s plan was developed by the Continuum of Care (a conglomeration of social service agencies that address issues facing the homeless) as well as other local participants. Among other things, it calls for both earmarked state funds and reapportioned federal and local expenditures to fund services for the homeless. It targets a number of key issues raised in the HUD study, including prevention, employment, behavioral health, and permanent housing. The plan also calls for revamping methods of discharge planning for those transitioning out of foster care, hospitals, mental health care and jails.

Milwaukee’s plan appears to meet the National Alliance to End Homelessness recommendations for successful planning by possessing four elements: identifying a person or body responsible for implementation; setting numeric outcomes; identifying a funding source; and setting a clear implementation timeline.

According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, taking a 10-year plan from “good to great” requires extensive engagement of public officials and community champions, as well as the ability to sustain momentum for implementation through changes in political leadership and priorities. With changes in political leadership likely on the horizon here in Milwaukee, it would appear that momentum-building will need to be a top priority for plan supporters.