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Philanthropy’s Role in Ending Homelessness

Most foundations do not include homelessness among their funding priorities. Those that do give to homelessness represent all types of foundations—large and small, corporate, community, and family. For a few, it is a founding principal. For others, it is part of a strong commitment to their local community. Still, others nest homelessness under broader funding priorities such as housing, human services, or families, and children.

Historically, giving in homelessness has represented only a fraction of total philanthropy—about 1% a year. Significant fluctuations in total dollars from year to year have compromised planning and stability for organizations that provide services to homeless people.

Broad support for human service initiatives has caused the majority of homelessness grants to go toward programs that only ameliorate the condition of homelessness, instead of to those that work to end homelessness altogether. During the 1990s, more than 80% of homelessness funding went to provide direct, temporary human services.

Only a few foundations have aligned with advocates, researchers, and policymakers by funding efforts to address the fundamental systemic social problems that are understood as

Homeless Population Likely Larger 

  • Accurate data on the number and characteristics of the state’s homeless population helps state and local governments more effectively target programs that address homelessness. 

  • While HUD’s point‑in‑time count provides a useful estimate of the number and characteristics of individuals experiencing homelessness in California and across the nation, the data are commonly understood to reflect an undercount. 

  • Efforts to produce an accurate and complete count are hindered by various factors, including: (1) the transitory nature of the homeless population that make a count inherently difficult and (2) limitations on counting all forms of homelessness. For example, individuals and families living in overcrowded housing or youth who are couch‑surfing are typically not captured in HUD’s point‑in‑time counts, yet these populations reflect an important dimension of the state’s homelessness crisis. 

Many Individuals Experiencing Homelessness Also Struggle With Mental Illness or a Substance Use Disorder

  • Estimates vary on exactly how many individuals experiencing homelessness also have mental illness, with national estimates ranging from as low as 20 percent to as high as 45 percent. The Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority found that 29 percent of homeless individuals in Los Angeles County had a mental illness or substance use disorder in 2019. 

  • The prevalence of mental illness appears to differ for distinct categories of the homeless population. For example, researchers have estimated that the prevalence of mental illness or substance use disorder is higher for unsheltered adults than for sheltered adults. 

  • There also is evidence to show that homelessness may lead individuals to develop a mental illness or exacerbate existing mental illnesses. That is to say, the chronic stress associated with living without stable housing has dire consequences on a person’s mental health. 

  • For individuals who are both homeless and have mental health or substance use disorders, behavioral health services can be an essential component of addressing their homelessness. 

Variety of Approaches for Addressing Homelessness

There are a variety of approaches for assisting homeless individuals and families. Each type of assistance has pros and cons. None is obviously superior to the others in all respects. 

  • Some Approaches Cost Less, but May Offer Temporary Solutions . . . Some approaches—such as rapid rehousing (short‑term rent assistance, moving cost assistance, or help with housing search) or shelters—tend to be cheaper, can be deployed more quickly, and have lower barriers of entry for participants. The downside of these approaches is that they tend to offer only a temporary solution. This means that recipients may be more likely to fall back into homelessness. 

  • . . . While Others Cost More, but May Have More Long‑Term Results. More permanent solutions include long‑term rent assistance and supportive housing. With these approaches, recipients receive assistance as long as they need it (as long as their income remains below certain levels). Long‑term rent assistance tends to be more expensive than rapid rehousing. Similarly, supportive housing construction tends to require significant upfront costs. Supportive housing also typically takes years to site and build. Balancing out the higher costs and long implementation time is the fact that recipients of these programs are less likely to fall back into homelessness.

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