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Homelessness: A View From The United States

Homelessness: A View From The United States

Jan Rivers

There is a poem well known to UK baby boomers called The Naming of Parts. It’s by Henry Reed who was a conscript to the army in the Second World War and his famous poem describes learning to use a rifle which was missing many of the parts actually needed for the job. Picture him and his fellow soldier trainees in an army campground in the midst of a blossoming English Spring, far away from the battle fields and anguish of war, being instructed by an inept drill sergeant in handling of the parts of a rifle “which in your case you do not have”.

Listening to Nan Roman was a bit like that. Thankfully she didn’t describe the work to end homelessness as a war but in the salubrious surroundings of a Te Papa lounge we did hear about all of the elements of a successful approach to combatting homelessness. She took time to explain what a successful strategy requires: statistics, a plan, some goals to end homelessness generally and amongst specific parts of the population, policy and tools to support the effort and the opportunity to change course if things are not working. Usefully she had taken quite some effort to gauge her remarks to a NZ audience, outlining approaches that might work well here. “Elements which” she may as well have said, echoing the poem, “in your case you do not have”

Nan is the CEO and President of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in the USA. She was in New Zealand to speak at Community Housing Aotearoa’s 2017 conference about the US efforts to cut homelessness and what she had to say is highly relevant to the New Zealand situation.

She told the conference that the Alliance is not the lead body for working with homelessness but rather an organisation that carries out data collection and research, provides public education, policy and advocacy on homelessness and helps communities to implement homelessness reduction programmes. The organisation seeks to be a trusted partner of local, state and federal government, as well as the advocacy and philanthropy sector, and it has no equivalent in New Zealand.

Nan started out by describing some of the obvious differences between the US and NZ homelessness situations. “The USA is not a welfare state” she said “and there are no rights to social assistance or to meet human needs (except for the elderly and disabled) and what is provided is inadequate”. There is no explicit right to housing in the United States and the US definition for homelessness differs from New Zealand, meaning literally a lack of shelter. This is in contrast to New Zealand definitions where being in temporary accommodation, having no security, sharing accommodation, and uninhabitable housing are included. Scale is an issue as well - in the United States 565,000 people may lack shelter on any given night and over the course of a year some 1.5 million people are homeless for a period.

She discussed the levels of success that the plan had had between 2009 and 2015 where, despite rising rents, a tighter rental market and a rising population, rates of homelessness had fallen by 10% overall and by 13% for homeless families. She equated the NZ and US situations and discovered that despite New Zealand’s more liberal interpretation of homelessness, Auckland’s rough sleeper population has nonetheless been recorded at 228 people in the CBD. This is equivalent to Philadelphia, a city of similar size, where there were 225 rough sleepers in the central city. Given the additional tools that NZ has in its intervention toolbox, such as welfare payments, state and social housing, this close alignment in unsheltered people could be considered somewhat alarming.

She described the effective lobbying that moved the USA from a situation where there was little reliable homelessness data to one where there are now two datasets. One of these the Point-in-Time Counts, is a bi-annual community-by-community count which is tied to qualification for federal funding for homeless assistance. She described the reasons for the Unites States relative success and it is here that the differences between the situation in NZ and the US become apparent. The starting point though was the availability of reliable data, around which a plan could be structured and which has allowed for the creation of all the other elements of a strategy.

The US homelessness plan also included:

• An objective of ending homelessness
• A nationally agreed strategy
• Clear national and local goals
• A sense of urgency
• Policy tools and approaches
• The collection of data on what works best
• The ability to change direction, however hard, when approaches are not working.

Sub-elements of the strategy included the development of agreed approaches and pathways for working with homelessness. A Housing First approach meant that other issues such as drug and alcohol abuse or indebtedness were not hindrances to being housed. She made the point that interim and staged options for homeless people carried their own costs and that putting homeless families into emergency accommodation simply dislocates them from their schools and communities and adds expense, time and further disruption to the process of rehousing.

The reason for the positive results appeared to be that, as well as the plan, there is broad buy-in to solving the homelessness crisis in the United States from the US Federal government, state and local governments and NGOs, and there is an agreed plan. Which in our case we do not have.


There are regional homelessness strategies for Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton and Tauranga and a 2016 multi-party report from a number of political parties on homelessness which has 20 recommendations.

As far as data the best available for measuring homelessness appears to be from the 2013 census.

Nan was interviewed by Radio New Zealand

The two datasets reported by Housing New Zealand relate not to homelessness but to the house stock and the sales, vacancy management and building of state houses.

The MSD maintains a register of social housing demand, currently less than 5000 people but it includes only people who are identified as eligible for social housing. Eligibility for social housing includes beneficiaries and people who are employed at or near the minimum wage and their dependents and being unable to find suitable accommodation, ie you are homeless by the NZ definition described above.


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