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Homelessness and What to Do About It

September 9, 2022

At United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, our housing stability work is a fundamental component of our mission to improve access to education, income and health. After all, children need secure housing to do their best in school, adults need safe and affordable homes to get and keep living-wage jobs, and we all require a safe and secure home to maintain both physical and mental health.

On any given night, more than 4,400 people are experiencing homelessness in Dallas and Collin counties. And although that number has declined in recent years, homelessness is still a significant challenge in our community. What can we do about it?

This question was the focus of the third installment of the event series Hard Conversations: Who Deserves a Shot at the American Dream? from our partner Housing Forward, formerly Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.

The virtual event, held Aug. 23, featured Jill Khadduri, Ph.D., and Marybeth Shinn, Ph.D., authors of the book “In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and What to Do About It.” Ashley Brundage, executive director of housing stability and senior vice president of community impact at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, served as moderator.

The event was a fascinating discussion on topics including:

  • What causes homelessness
  • The role of housing affordability
  • How to make housing voucher programs more successful
  • The impact of supportive services, such as childcare and workforce development programs
  • How to tackle chronic homelessness
  • Homelessness prevention measures that work

View the full event below, or read on for a few of the highlights from the conversation.

What causes homelessness?

The speakers emphasized that homelessness is a result of failures that occur at a societal level—not failures of individual people.

“We spend a lot of time in the book debunking the idea that homelessness is caused by attributes of individuals,” Khadduri explained. “Instead, we look at homelessness as a systems failure—in part because of the very broad income distribution we have in the United States. Most people who experience homelessness have poverty-level incomes. What tips people into homelessness in any given year? It’s a crisis, such as losing a job, or losing the housing that someone else was providing for them.”

How common is homelessness?

“Homelessness for most people is temporary, so many more people pass through homelessness than are homeless on any given night,” Shinn said. “The most widely quoted statistic about homelessness is the Point in Time count, and upwards of half a million people (in the U.S.) are homeless on a single night. That feels like a kind of small problem. But over seven times that number of people are homeless over the course of a year…It’s a much bigger problem than most people realize.”

Indeed, homelessness is far more common than you might think. Shinn points to a study in the 1990s that found 14% of Americans surveyed said they had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

Who is most likely to become homeless?

Shinn says most people are surprised to learn the age at which a person is most likely to enter a homeless shelter. “The answer is infancy,” she says. “That reinforces that it’s really an economic problem. It’s a housing problem. Babies take a parent out of the workforce, and those costs of childcare, on top of the costs of housing, are often more than poor families can manage.”

What role does housing play in ending homelessness?

Shinn and Khadduri discussed a variety of initiatives that target homelessness—but housing was always the common thread in the solutions they offered.

“Contemporary homelessness that began in the 1980s is basically a housing problem,” Khadduri said. “It’s a crisis of housing affordability for the poorest people. It affects more types of people, including families with young children and people who are working but at low-wage jobs.”

Shinn and Khadduri emphasize that research has shown that “housing first” programs are highly effective at ending homelessness for families, individuals with mental illness and others who experience homelessness.

Shinn pointed to Finland, which she says “has solved the problem,” as a model that the U.S. could replicate.

“There are a number of European countries that have made ‘housing first’ their priority, and Finland has probably gone further than anyone else,” she said. “They put the resources in to create a variety of housing options for people, and they have driven the cost of housing down. And they are not a wealthier country, on average, than the United States.

“It has shown that devoting the energy and resources necessary to end homelessness is not a question of wealth but of political will,” she said. “The U.S. can afford the sort of investment Finland has made, if we choose to do so.”

Our Work to End Homelessness Continues

At United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, we recognize that housing stability is foundational for supporting education, income and health—the building blocks of opportunity.

Our work in housing stability spans a continuum of services, including:

  • Supporting the creation of affordable housing
  • Eviction prevention
  • Assisting people experiencing homelessness so they can get housed as quickly as possible

As the MDHA event indicated, solutions like these can have a real impact on homelessness in North Texas. However, our community must work together to demonstrate a commitment to ending homelessness.

Interested in supporting this important work? Here are two ways you can make an impact right now: