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.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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