Insights from the Research Team

Our thoughts on tackling homelessness

Published on
2020-07-16
Written by
Stephen Clare
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Our latest research report delves into homelessness in the US and UK and introduces three exciting new funding opportunities. These are Crisis UK's Policy and Campaigns team, the J-PAL North America Housing Stability Evaluation Incubator and Community Solutions: Built for Zero. We believe that these organisations are the best bets for members looking to help reduce and mitigate homelessness. However, we don't consider them high-impact funding opportunities. This is largely because they are relatively less neglected by other funders. The more interest in homelessness programs there is among governments, organisations and other donors, the less likely it is that an additional donor will find great opportunities that aren't receiving funding.

There’s no doubt that people experiencing homelessness suffer greatly. In the full report, we review the evidence on the mental, physical and social hardship homelessness inflicts. For example, almost half of people experiencing homelessness have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and the average age at death for both men and women is below 60.1 By comparison, about 20 percent of Americans have a mental illness2 and US life expectancy is 79.3 Children and adolescents experiencing homelessness are more likely to get sick, drop out of school and suffer abuse than the general population.4 We also find that there are effective ways to reduce this suffering and help people find safe, stable housing. We reviewed 10 different approaches to fighting homelessness for our report and found four with strong evidence of effectiveness. “Housing First” approaches seem particularly promising.

Beyond effectiveness

However, as philanthropists who want to do the most good possible, we need to consider more than just the severity of a problem and the effectiveness of solutions. We also have to think about what other actors in the system are doing so that we can find opportunities that aren't yet funded. This allows us to have counterfactual impact: to cause a change that wouldn’t otherwise have happened.

A key finding of our research is that, relative to other cause areas, homelessness receives quite a lot of funding already. Annual federal funding alone for homelessness programs in the US is $4.7 billion.5 This is almost twice as much as total global spending on efforts to fight malaria ($2.7 billion).6 This spending allocation is not proportional to the scale of these problems. About 1 million people per year use emergency shelters in the US and at any given time there are about 100,000 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.7 In contrast, there are 250 million cases of malaria each year, resulting in 400,000 deaths. More than half of these deaths, around 250,000, are of children under five years old.8

US homelessness receives more funding than malaria, but affects far fewer peopleImportance and neglectedness of homelessness and malaria

Source: Author’s calculations using various sources5, 6, 7

Because homelessness programs receive quite a lot of funding relative to the number of people affected, it's unlikely that highly cost-effective opportunities to help are going unfunded.

Why do we give?

Why do homelessness programs attract so much more funding than malaria programs? An obvious answer is that homelessness is a much more salient issue for those of us who have money to give. Since nobody dies of malaria in San Francisco or London, it’s hard to imagine the suffering it causes. In contrast, people experiencing homelessness are very visible in these cities.9

Many of us feel especially strongly about helping people we see every day or are personally connected to. But in the interest of doing immense good, it’s worth reflecting on where these preferences come from. If every philanthropist acted solely on the basis of intuition, the invisible problems that affect people we never personally meet would remain drastically underfunded compared to the conspicuous problems in our own communities.

Personal decisions, global actions

It may be helpful to reimagine philanthropy not as an isolated, personal decision, but as a contribution to the combined efforts of governments, businesses, charities and individuals around the world working to solve global problems. Deciding between homelessness initiatives or other charitable causes is not about ignoring one problem in favour of another. It’s about finding where one’s efforts are most needed right now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really excited about the homelessness charities we’ve identified here. Recognizing that not all of the existing spending is efficiently allocated, these charities work to improve the quality of government spending to ensure that it supports the most effective interventions. For members who feel a special duty to help people experiencing homelessness in high-income countries, supporting these charities is a great bet. But I’d still encourage the majority of members to allocate most of their giving to our high-impact opportunities, where more resources are sorely needed and the good they can do is truly immense.

References

Stephen Clare

Author

Stephen joined Founders Pledge in 2019. Previously he was a Program Analyst for the United Nations Development Programme in Rwanda. He has also worked on climate change projects with the UN in Panama and the Youth Climate Lab in Canada. Stephen has an M.Sc. from McGill University and a B.Arts.Sci. from McMaster University.