What have the Americans done about homelessness? Quite a lot, actually!

The Wellesley Institute’s Michael Shapcott spent three days in Washington at the National Alliance to End Homelessness annual conference. While the United States faces a deep and painful level of homelessness, the US federal government is taking an inspiring lead in the campaign to end homelessness. Here are some observations:

One year ago, the Obama administration released Opening Doors a detailed strategic framework for preventing and ending homelessness across the US. This was a first for the US, and unlike anything in Canada, Opening Doors includes practical plans to end all dimensions of homelessness, with specific timelines.

In the last couple of the years, the US federal government has launched new funding, legislation and programs aimed at ending homelessness. At a time when every part of the US government has faced strong financial pressures, including funding cuts, the investments in ending homelessness have been protected and increased.

The strong funding commitment has drawn in other partners in a co-ordinated campaign, including state and local governments, plus the non-profit and community sectors. The federal government is taking leadership and it is effectively engaging other partners. US homelessness initiatives are supported by both major political parties and not the victim of partisan politics.

Tied to the funding is a clear requirement for robust data. The federal government sets out the information that it needs to know, and local service providers collect data. Strong  data allows the US to have a much better understanding of the scale and dimension of homelessness (in Canada, there are no reliable national numbers on homelessness).

Good data allows everyone from service providers to government funders to plan for better outcomes. Service providers can be funded based on successful performance – funding can be tied to moving people who are homeless into permanent housing.

The lack of data and perverse funding incentives in Canada (including paying service providers for an occupied cot in a shelter, instead of paying them to assist people in moving from homelessness to housed) limits accountability for public funding and prevents Canadians from effectively planning for better outcomes.

Canada has plenty of social advantages over the US, including our national health care and a significant stock of cost-effective social housing that was built when Canada still had a national housing plan. We also have plenty of smart and capable people and organizations at the local level who know what needs to be done to prevent and end homelessness.

What we lack is a federal government willing to take the strong leadership role demonstrated by the US federal government; and effectively engage others in a dedicated national campaign to prevent and end homelessness.