Ending Homelessness and Ending Poverty Are NOT The Same Thing – They May Not Even Be Related

In America, there are about 46.5 million people living in poverty at any point in time. There are about 1.2 million households living in public housing. About 600,000 people are homeless at any given point in time, and there are an estimated 3.5 million different people that experience homelessness in any given year. The number of people experiencing homelessness and the number of people experiencing poverty are nowhere close to the same number. And the number of households living in public housing comes nowhere close to matching the number of people living in poverty. (I’d try to demonstrate the same thing in places like Canada, but there isn’t a common PIT count or anything similar to the AHAR. Where there is PIT Count data in Canada, the same arguments I present here work.)

Income has a strong relationship to the presence (or absence) of economic poverty. Income does not have a strong relationship to the prediction of homelessness. So maybe we need to rethink all questions we ask related to income.

Another oft-mentioned statement that people spending 50% or more of their gross monthly income on housing are at risk of homelessness. Problem is, no one ever really defines what is meant by “risk” in this instance in a credible way. And the statement, as it turns out, seems to be false or at least misleading. Most people that spend 50% or more of their monthly income on their rent do NOT experience homelessness.

Time and again there are advocates and others that state Rapid Re-Housing or Housing First programs must be a failure because people are still living in poverty. Programs that get people out of homelessness were never intended to get people out of poverty. You can’t claim a housing intervention is a failure just because it didn’t do something it never claimed to do.

You don’t need to end poverty to end homelessness – most poor people have never and will never experience homelessness. Maybe it is time we took a look at what economically poor people in your community do in order to find and maintain housing, rather than thinking getting out of poverty is the answer to homelessness.

Increasing income for people is not a bad thing. Heck, it should be encouraged and a focus of attention for each person you get housed. But, it is not the only thing, nor does future housing success hinge upon your ability to make this happen. And there is absolutely no reason to keep people homeless longer to sort out their income before they get housing. You are not setting them up for failure if you don’t get them up with more income first. You are helping them prepare for a housed, but economically precarious future – like tens of millions of others.

Maybe in a perfect world every community would have the ability to provide government assisted housing to folks experiencing homelessness that is geared to her/his income level. Maybe in some utopia every person spending 50% or more of their income on housing would have access to rent-geared-to-income housing. But that is more fantasy than reality. And while it may be preferable to have it that way, it is unlikely that there will ever be an instance where supply meets demand.

In conclusion, let me say this:


–       Increasing income is desirable, but not essential for future housing success, given most people that live in extreme economic poverty are never homeless;

–       There is likely much to be learned from low income households in your community of how they accessed and maintain housing;

–       Every time someone laments the lack of affordable housing in your community – while more is always desirable – there are likely hundreds or even thousands of households that are living in poverty in your community that are housed and not homeless – and there is no way they are all living in existing affordable or publicly assisted housing;

–       We need to do a better job educating ourselves and the general public and policy makers that programs that end homelessness are not designed to be programs that get people out of poverty;

–       We need to strategically work through for whom affordable housing should be created, and which households should have access to existing affordable housing stock – and an assessment to help us figure this out would be helpful to determine when something is “just” an affordability issue, and not an issue where other more intensive supports would be beneficial.


Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

11 Responses to “Ending Homelessness and Ending Poverty Are NOT The Same Thing – They May Not Even Be Related”

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  1. Christine says:

    Hi Iain,

    You make a lot of great points about the relationship between homelessness interventions and poverty- namely that they are two distinct problems. Related problems, yes, but distinct ones. I am really interested in this:

    “Income does not have a strong relationship to the prediction of homelessness.”

    Would you share which research informs that comment? I know that would be interesting to members of our community, certainly. I also ask because much of the other research that I have read suggests the common causal denominator for the homeless is usually poverty.

  2. K says:

    I’m not Iain, but I think I can respond to your question.

    Most people who live in poverty never become homeless (there is tons of research out there to support this assertion). The vast majority of folks who become homeless are also living in poverty, sure, but this doesn’t mean there is a strong relationship between the two attributes (if there was, we would expect a larger proportion of those living in poverty to become homeless).

  3. Matt says:

    I agree with Iain’s point here and I often try and make this point to local stakeholders as well. The sticking point for me often lies in the definition of homelessness and how it is perceived and oprationalized. DHHS and Department of Education targeted and mainstream homeless programs use a much broader definition of homelessness and those resources and associated programs and stakeholders have great influence in our area.

  4. Frank says:

    There is economic poverty and spiritual poverty, or broken spirits. We track economic poverty, not spiritual. I suspect those in economic poverty and spiritual poverty as most likely to be/become homeless.

    • k says:

      I don’t even know if you have to go to something as difficult to operationalize as “spiritual poverty.” One could create concrete, data driven metrics to evaluate what people either have or do not have. I guess what I am really talking about is operationalizing “capital.” I’d be absolutely shocked if Iain and the folks at Orgcode weren’t already working on this.

  5. k says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this post, and I think in many ways it points to the inadequacy how how we measure “poverty.” In the United States, anyway, it is purely an income and family size based calculation. There is clearly way more to it than just those two attributes. Things like family supports, non cash benefits, social supports, etc really need to be taken into consideration to truly understand poverty.

    Over the years I’ve come to think of homelessness as total resource exhaustion. No money, no family one speaks to or who can offer one accommodation, no medical care, no non-cash benefits, etc. To truly understand the risk factors associated with becoming homeless, we either need to broaden our understanding of poverty to include more than just income or come up with a new metric/attribute to be measured.

  6. L says:

    “Time and again there are advocates and others that state Rapid Re-Housing or Housing First programs must be a failure because people are still living in poverty. Programs that get people out of homelessness were never intended to get people out of poverty. You can’t claim a housing intervention is a failure just because it didn’t do something it never claimed to do.”

    Are you using “rapid rehousing” or “housing first” to mean short term assistance? I don’t think the advocates and others (do you use the term “others” to mean people who are homeless?) consider short term assistance a failure. I do think many consider it inadequate.

    The argument is that it is inadequate does not relate to solving poverty..but that it is inadequate for solving homelessness.

    I agree- we do not need to solve poverty to solve homelessness. But in a capitalistic society, where we will always have a % of people in poverty, we need to provide longer term housing assistance to address homelessness. The gap between wages and rent is too vast to expect 2 month-2 yrs of assistance to keep the family from becoming homeless again.

    Short term solutions certainly have a role in addressing homelessness- it is a cheaper way to shelter at time when our lack of affordable housing stock is at a crisis level…and a form of prevention for households with short term economic needs…but if we expect short term assistance (can we please call it what it is?) to solve homelessness, it needs to be coupled with- a pathway to increased wages or a pathway to a long term subsidy.

    The “other poor people make it” argument is a little too bootstrappy for my liking. Yes, lots of people live in poverty that never become “homeless”..in part because many are not counted or don’t fit into (ever changing) definitions of homelessness or can’t access homeless services because of eligibility issues…but that does not make them homeful; others have support systems, resources, and other survival skills to make it on the edge…others access the support they need (such as public housing)…But the fact remains that a percentage of poor people do become homeless and in many places, that number is growing. We’d do better at addressing the issue if there were more housing resources to address it, and more access to services when appropriate….plenty of people live with heart disease, but we don’t use that as an argument to not address heart attacks, do transplants, give meds, etc.

    • k says:

      Your logic is sound, but available data do not support your assertions about returns to homelessness. There is no available data that suggests that anywhere near a majority of those receiving RRH assistance return to homelessness after stabilization. If, in the next few years, there is data to suggest that those served by an RRH model program (operating with fidelity to the program model), then you may have a point.

      Your final analogy also is interesting, maybe not for reasons that you intended. We DO offer different kinds of treatment to people having heart attacks than to those suffering from heart disease. We also decide who will get a transplant based on the severity of their condition.

      I get the resource limitation point to an extent, but I’m not sure what good it does to complain about inadequate resources. The fact that there isn’t enough is actually more reason to effectively target what resources we do have.

      • L says:

        I love targeting! And I did not mean to come off like I was complaining about inadequate resources….more that it is our collective responsibility to advocate for more and to be honest about the facts and the limitations of current resources.

        As for the data (speaking of inadequate)…most of what we see is that families don’t return to homelessness after the subsidy runs out IF they are able to access additional resources- be it a long term subsidy and additional cash assistance, and every so often increased income and change in a relationship. So it was not the short term assistance that was the “success” …it was the access to the longer term fix. Again, not to say the short term resource did not play a role.

        We need to consider other indicators of the success or failure than a return to “homelessness”…we tend to consider any household that did not return a “success”…yet- we know of families who then opted to split up their families to avoid re-entering shelter; are living in unsafe situations, resorted to prostitution, stealing and have ended up in jail, children in state custody….yes, anecdotes and some extreme cases, but true stories. While the data shows that they did not return to homelessness, the cost to those families, and the state is much higher.

        The analogy is exactly as I intended….but when a condition is severe, we don’t point to those with less severe symptoms and just give a pill to make them feel better for the day. Prevention and diversion and short term responses are all necessary…but so are deeper investments.

  7. Paul Behler says:

    Dear Iain,
    You seem to have forgotten a basic necessity of life in this “Real World”!!!! Whether the means of providing housing and sustenance is government subsidy, personal wealth or income, grant, gift, or any other means, still requires the use of “Coin of The Realm”!!! Some one somewhere has to pony up the barter, exchange, or out-right cash payment for the transactions to occur that provide services and /or commodities for those that have not!!!!! You can espouse Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, Egalitarianism, or any other “-Ism” you wish; and still an acceptable “exchange” need happen!!!
    IF YOU LOSE YOUR INCOME< YOU WILL LOSE YOUR SUSTENANCE on many if not all levels! Since only the 1% presumably have enough back-up (savings) to weather “the storm”, the reality for the majority of us 99%’ers is “Real”, and not just imagined. And your statement about “Risk” clearly does not add up to a hill of beans, as the “risk of failure” from lack of income, is clearly why the 1%’ers have mandated the laws about institutional finance “Risk” failure by those “at risk” so as to obtain their possessions for their own profit!!!!
    Iain, I am losing respect for you and your view, as part of the 1%’ers that you clearly fail to understand!!!! But, you must know that we who understand economics 101 (or 1% plus anybody else equals more that 1% and that can not and must not happen), real world economics are still in play and rule!!!!!
    Paul Behler

  8. Frank says:

    For those who might want to read a couple of article’s on prevention, here are the links. You will see it is very difficult to predict who will become homeless and that poverty is only one factor, not the factor.