Research and evaluation over the past several decades has documented the characteristics and service needs of people who are experiencing homelessness. Although several evidence-based practices have been identified, some of this research is now out of date. For example, national estimates of the percentage of adults experiencing homelessness who have a history of foster care or juvenile justice involvement are nearly 20 years old.
New trends—such as an increase in households in doubled-up or shared living arrangements—require investigation. Also, gaps remain in our knowledge of how best to serve specific groups, such as veterans and youth. Finally, changes in how health care is delivered as a result of the Affordable Care Act’s health financing reforms will affect services provided to individuals and families experiencing homelessness.
Eight Priority Topics for New Research on Homelessness
To identify priority topics for new research, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) reviewed more than 200 studies on homelessness conducted between 1989 and 2011. The Council also reviewed more than 30 additional studies by USICH member agencies that are in various stages of implementation. These studies were mapped against the objectives and strategies in Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness (PDF | 2.4 MB). The resulting National Research Agenda, published in late 2012, proposes research in eight areas:
- Affordable and supportive housing
- Cost offsets/cost-effectiveness
- Homeless crisis response
- Homelessness prevalence and risk and protective factors
- Improving health, well-being, and stability
- Justice linkages
- Accessing mainstream benefits
- Pathways to employment
Future Research Needs
In many cases, existing studies point the way to future research needs. For example:
- Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of permanent supportive housing (PSH). However, there is still much to learn about the effectiveness of different PSH models for individuals and families with high service needs. These models include scattered-site, single-site, and mixed-use approaches. More information is also needed on the best housing approach for veterans experiencing homelessness. In addition, studies could help identify how PSH developers overcome neighborhood opposition to their projects.
- A growing body of evidence seems to support the cost-effectiveness of PSH. The Council believes research to standardize methodologies will produce stronger, more reliable estimates of cost savings. In particular, it highlights the need to determine whether PSH is cost-effective for all residents, or only for those with the most extensive needs.
- Experience gained from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program reveals that it is difficult to predict which households will actually experience homelessness. The National Research Agenda calls for a rigorous evaluation to determine how prevention programs can identify which households would become homeless without assistance. Research is also needed on homelessness prevention for veterans.
Trends seen by service providers and currently being researched suggest the need for further details. Examples include:
- Data from multiple sources suggest that more households entered into doubled-up or shared living arrangements during the recent economic downturn. The Council calls for research to identify the number and characteristics of households living in doubled-up situations. These studies could help pinpoint the relationship between these living arrangements and how they can lead to homelessness. The Council also notes the need to study the impact of being doubled-up on educational outcomes for children.
- Many people become homeless upon separation from another service system—such as foster care or the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Others become homeless when they leave military service. Research can highlight the risk factors for homelessness among these groups and identify strategies to connect them to housing and services.
In some instances, laws and regulations may affect people at risk for or experiencing homelessness. For example:
- The Council suggests research into the effect of Public Housing Authority screening and termination policies on homelessness. It also calls for a cost-benefit analysis of local laws that serve to criminalize homelessness. These include laws that make it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public spaces. Anti-loitering and open container laws also affect people experiencing homelessness.
Finally, the Council notes that dedicated resources alone cannot prevent or end homelessness. More research is needed into the role of mainstream resources, including the following:
- Many people who are homeless are eligible for, but not receiving, mainstream benefits. The Affordable Care Act supports efforts to expand eligibility for Medicaid, but research is needed to identify barriers that keep people who are homeless from accessing this important resource. In addition, studies could identify successful strategies to connect people to Medicaid, Social Security income benefits, and employment assistance.
The specific research topics highlighted in the National Research Agenda are illustrative but not exhaustive, the Council notes. It also points to the need for research at both the local and national levels. The Council encourages cities and counties across the country to partner with local universities and other interested organizations to research topics of importance to their communities. These groups are encouraged to publicize local solutions so that other communities may benefit.
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