The State of Homelessness in America

Firstly, recognize that this article is the opinion of the author and is not the official opinion of The Salvation Army. The opinion comes from twenty years of research, experience, and the contextual awareness of Metro Nashville. The following considerations are to be catalytic to listening for learning and are not conclusive. Second, keep the faith. There are positive changes throughout the system in Nashville. Capacity and funding are the most limiting factors. The availability of one will reduce the other. Finally, note that I have worked previously with Corinth, a researcher and contributor to the White House Report and respect his personal and professional integrity.

In 1988, national policies were catalytic in blaming the individual for not being able to solve individually what was to become a national housing and health epidemic. President Reagan promoted ‘the idea that his

Administration bears no responsibility for the problem of homelessness and he said ‘there are always going to be people’; who live in the streets by choice.” Reagan on Homelessness: Many Choose to Live in the Streets, NYT ‘’There are shelters in virtually every city, and shelters here, and those people still prefer out there on the grates or the lawn to going into one of those shelters.’’ The public narrative of individualism strengthened the homeless bias of low competence and low warmth to the point that “homeless” has the most negative bias in the country today.

Thankfully, things are changing. This month the White House released a report: The State of Homelessness in America.

While the report intertwines research and assumptions, it also, in this reviewer’s opinion, creates the proper framework for significant progress. Simply, we must recognize that society has a responsibility for affordable housing, quality of life in communities, effective systems of service, and then consideration of individual characteristics of our socially displaced neighbors.

We have called upon the city of Nashville and the State of Tennessee to reduce social displacement by:

Creating a New Public Narrative of quality of life of the community.

Strengthening the Community Choice Architecture so that persons are encouraged to rapidly re-enter the housing market.

Listening to the living experiences of those outside of housing in order to use behavioral insights to improve the processes to housing.

The White House report: The State of Homelessness in America(SOHA), is aligned with this call to action.

SOHA - In the context of a simple supply and demand framework, we analyze the major causes of this variation in homelessness across communities: (i) the higher price of housing resulting from overregulation of housing markets; (ii) the conditions for sleeping on the street (outside of shelter or housing); (iii) the supply of homeless shelters; and (iv) the characteristics of individuals in a community that make homelessness more likely.

Again, although one might not agree with all of the assumptions, the call is upon:

Making housing affordable as a community responsibility.

Quality of Life of the community at the street level, including quality of life laws, policing, and justice solutions.

Community Choice Architecture through shelter policies, availability of housing vouchers, housing placement, and supportive services.

Characteristics of the individual experiencing social displacement, or homelessness.

The report also extends what we know to be true, homelessness is often first the loss of home as identified by “ties to family, religious communities, and friends.” Homelessness is a broken relationship issue. “Homelessness may result when these social ties are exhausted,” as those with strong social connections are 60% less likely to experience homelessness.

Two additional positive notes from the report:

A major HUD-sponsored randomized control trial in the United States found that long term housing vouchers reduced the amount of time families spend in homeless shelters. This is reflected in our experience in Nashville. Simply, strengthening the market with vouchers allows the market to respond to while housing individuals and families.

Housing First approach maintains a commitment to providing housing with no preconditions to program participants. In addition, the latest 2019 funding allows communities flexibility to impose service participation requirements for participants after they have been stabilized in housing. Community flexibility is most often a positive policy position.

Now what?

Nashville should continue to create our own public narrative. Nashville is a compassionate community of neighbors who love our neighbors as ourselves.

We should read the report with caution and challenge the research and assumptions. Through the dialogues, our community can improve our system architecture so that our neighbors spend fewer days on our streets and live longer lives.

We should listen to those living amongst us, learn from other cities, and design our collective future.

Let’s listen together. Give me a call and let’s have coffee (615) 933-9305.

To Read the Full Report click here.

Major Ethan Frizzell serves as the Area Commander of The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army has been serving in Middle TN since 1890. A graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, his focus is the syzygy of the community culture, the systems of service, and the lived experience of our neighbors. He uses creative abrasion to rub people just the wrong way so that an offense may cause interaction and then together we can create behaviorally designed solutions to nudge progress. Simply, negotiating the future for progress that he defines as Quality of Life in Jesus!

Misty Ratcliff