Excerpted From: Courtney Lauren Anderson, Housing Instability and Covid, 18 University of Saint Thomas Law Journal 259 (Spring, 2022 (108 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CourtneyLaurenAndersonThe pandemic's effects on people experiencing homelessness illuminate the need to address the exposure of this community to adverse health outcomes that are exacerbated at disproportionately high levels when external events that negatively impact everyone occur. This article describes the risks of being homeless, and how racial and other socioeconomic disparities within the homeless population necessitate comprehensive legal and policy reform to prevent people experiencing homelessness from further inequities. This reform should account for the interrelated causes for homelessness, and the best way to accomplish this is by utilizing funds to expand the availability of permanent supportive housing. Furthermore, policies related to housing instability for low-income people should be inherently anti-racist, given the demographic makeup of the homeless population.

First, this article will provide background information on the homeless population and reasons for homelessness. The next section will detail how COVID-19 worsens housing instability, and the physical and mental health effects of suffering homelessness. After a critique of housing policies that were implemented in response to the pandemic, the conclusion will set forth suggested reforms to protect this community from health risks and disease.

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Permanent supportive housing is a program that is borne from Housing First. The End Homeless Alliance describes Housing First as follows:

Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues. Additionally, Housing First is based on the theory that client choice is valuable in housing selection and supportive service participation, and that exercising that choice is likely to make a client more successful in remaining housed and improving their life.

A Housing First approach can benefit both homeless families and individuals with any degree of service needs. The flexible and responsive nature of a Housing First approach allows it to be tailored to help anyone. As such, a Housing First approach can help end homelessness for a household who became homeless due to a temporary personal or financial crisis, has limited-service needs, and only needs help accessing and securing permanent housing. At the same time, Housing First has been found to be a particularly effective approach to end homelessness for high-need populations, such as chronically homeless individuals.

Housing First models are proven to decrease homelessness, and these models are particularly effective for people experiencing chronic homelessness. Permanent supportive housing has reduced the number of chronically homeless people by 8 percent in the last fourteen years. There were estimated to be only 95,353 permanent supportive housing units in the United States ten years ago, and it is not entirely clear how many exist today.

Permanent supportive housing can either require engagement with specific social services as a prerequisite to residing in the units, or provide units with social services at various locations, and prospective residents are given vouchers to secure housing, and the services would follow via home visits. This type of housing integrates needed services into housing that is affordable in order to provide “decent, safe, affordable, community-based housing with flexible, voluntary support services designed to help the individual or family stay housed and live a more productive life in the community.” The use of permanent supportive housing can effectively replace jails, prisons, and other correctional institutions where unhoused individuals in need of services may be forced to reside. Permanent supportive housing also reduces the need of emergency health care by providing individualized health treatments for people who need specific care. This is all while providing a stable living space for people. Permanent supportive housing has also proven effective at providing services that treat trauma and violence and is designed to be long-term housing that does not concentrate individuals with illness together, but rather emphasizes and facilitates community living. Permanent supportive housing is particularly effective for people who suffer from mental health afflictions. Reinforcement for permanent supportive housing can be found in Olmstead v. L.C., where the US Supreme Court found that the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) requires “an affirmative obligation to ensure that individuals with disabilities live in the least restrictive, most integrated settings possible.” Martha Kinsley, a permanent supportive housing expert, noted that avoiding segregated settings that group people with health needs together runs against the policies and practices of the ADA. Permanent supportive housing integrates services to improve health and behaviors. This housing is also affordable, permitting subsidies to cover housing costs in excess of 30 percent of household income.

The White House Summit on Eviction Prevention commenced for the purpose of generating and implementing strategies and policies to assist landlords and tenants with the challenges of evictions due to the pandemic. The increased attention on housing instability related to the pandemic provides an opportunity to advocate for funds to be allocated for the eradication of homelessness, to truly focus on long-term solutions that provide a path to long-term housing stability.

Courtney Lauren Anderson is an associate professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law.