Three Things We Have Learned About Homelessness
The statistics on homelessness are hard to ignore. More than 20 percent of the world’s population – 1.6 billion people – lack adequate housing. In the United States, more than a half million people are experiencing homelessness on any given night. These numbers have undoubtedly grown as the pandemic has caused people to lose jobs, salary, and the ability to pay their mortgage or rent.
I’ve spent much of my career focused on programs designed to alleviate poverty and give people better access to financial services and basic human needs. I thought I knew a lot about homelessness and how the lack of adequate housing is detrimental to people, families, and communities.
But when Cisco entered a five-year, $50 million USD partnership with Destination: Home in 2018 to address homelessness in Santa Clara County, home of our corporate headquarters, I quickly learned that homelessness is a complex issue that requires strong collaborations, empathy, and creativity.
This week is Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week in the United States, which makes it the perfect opportunity to share what we have learned by working on this issue so closely.
1. We cannot end homelessness without understanding what causes it
Many people believe that mental illness and substance abuse are the main reasons people become homeless. While these can be factors, they are not the majority. In fact, only 36 percent of the homeless population report experiencing severe mental illness or chronic substance abuse, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A bigger problem is the lack of affordable housing available for extremely low-income people—those earning 30 percent or less of the local median income.
This is compounded by economic inequality. Over the last several decades, low-income wages have been stagnant; combined with skyrocketing housing costs, this leaves many families living paycheck to paycheck with few affordable housing options. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 6.5 million Americans experienced severe housing cost burden in 2018, which means they spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
These challenges are felt more disproportionately by people of color. Due to a persistent wealth gap, lack of economic opportunity, disparities in incarceration rates, and a legacy of structural racism, Black people account for 39.8 percent of the homeless population in the United States, while comprising only 13.4 percent of the total population.
2. The solution to homelessness is a home
As noted above, lack of affordable housing and low wages are forcing many people into homelessness. Therefore, we must develop more housing for our fellow citizens who earn the least or are particularly vulnerable, such as senior citizens and people with disabilities. Also, people need a place to live before they can effectively focus on matters like getting a job, improving their financial situation, obtaining mental health counseling, or addressing substance use or other medical issues. Supportive housing is a proven strategy for ending homelessness by combining an affordable home with support services for individuals. This approach is being used increasingly with positive results in the United States. For example, one study showed that such an initiative could cost up to $23,000 less per person per year than a shelter program.
Creating more permanent housing for extremely low-income people can move communities from just managing homelessness to ending it. But this type of housing is costly to build and often faces significant public opposition. We can all help by learning more and talking with each other and our elected officials about the urgent need for permanent supportive housing.
3. Public-private partnerships are key
Cisco contributed $50 million USD to address homelessness in Santa Clara County. That may sound like a lot of money, but in reality, absent any strategy or partnerships, that $50 million would have built only about 20 new housing units for extremely low-income people in Silicon Valley. That is hardly enough to make a meaningful impact for the nearly 10,000 people who were experiencing homelessness in our community before the pandemic – and the many more who have likely become homeless since it began. Trying to tackle a problem like homelessness in a silo will not get even the most well-meaning corporate donor very far.
Philanthropic giving comprises less than 10 percent of funding for social safety net services in the United States; the vast majority of funding for vulnerable residents comes from the government. At the same time, private capital can often move faster and be applied more flexibly than government funds. Partnering with the public sector in a strategic and meaningful way, where each stakeholder brings their respective strengths and resources to bear, is the most effective way to have an impact at a systemic level.
Santa Clara County is a great example, because voters had already passed an affordable housing bond (Measure A) that designated $700 million specifically for extremely low-income residents. Our investment has been made more meaningful because we were able to leverage the Measure A funding and partner with government agencies and a nonprofit that were collectively committed to addressing homelessness. The political will and public funding was absolutely critical – and Destination: Home brought that all together.
Here are some examples of how Destination: Home and its partners have parlayed our $50 million donation into more meaningful investments with longer-term impact:
- Acquiring and planning for 20 new deeply affordable and supportive housing developments, which will produce almost 2,000 new homes
- Capacity building for six non-profit affordable housing developers to expand their future housing pipelines by at least 1,600 new units in the next three years
- Expanding capacity of the countywide Homelessness Prevention System to serve 1,500 households annually and add services for victims of domestic violence
If you are concerned about homelessness in your community, you are not alone. While the conditions that exist in Santa Clara County may not exist in every county throughout the United States, every community has a genuine interest in ending homelessness. While the problem may seem daunting, I believe it is possible to solve if we all work together.
To get started, check out our new e-book, a Practical Guide: Working Together to End Homelessness. You can read more about what we’ve learned in Santa Clara County, and get ideas for how you can make a difference in your own communities.