Since the 1980s the rate of homelessness has increased significantly. Along with this escalation, the type of people that homelessness affects has diversified: from single men to women who have left abusive relationships (often with children), from the mentally ill to substance abusers. There are many explanations for the nature of contemporary homelessness, most credit the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, the appearance of crack cocaine, shifts in the labor market, increased rates of poverty among families and children, and, significantly, cutbacks in federal assistance programs.
Whatever the critical cause, on any given night, an estimated 600,000 people in the United States are homeless. At first, government agencies and nonprofit groups developed a system to help homeless families and individuals find emergency shelters. But it soon became apparent that a quick meal and a place to sleep for the night were just temporary solutions. Without attacking the many social problems that contribute to homelessness such as mental illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse the people who took refuge in emergency shelters would find themselves back on the streets repeatedly. It was clear that a single solution would not resolve the multi-faceted homelessness issue, yet government services lacked the cohesion and coordination necessary to tackle it.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) broke this cycle with the introduction of the Continuum of Care (CoC) program in 1994. This program recognizes that many factors lead to homelessness, and addresses them through coordinated community-based programs. It has dramatically changed the way government, communities, and advocates work together to deal with homelessness. The fundamental components of CoC are: outreach and assessment; emergency shelter; transitional housing with supportive service; and permanent housing. CoC connects homeless people with need-based services that are coordinated on a local level. If a client is a struggling mother, then she is guided through support services, parenting skill courses, and job-training programs, while receiving shelter through CoC. Alternatively, if the client is severely mentally ill and needs medical care and assistance, CoC connects him or her to an assisted-living facility. The program therefore performs a triage on those homeless people who simply need a boost in order to function in mainstream society, and those who need long-term care for mental illness, a disability, or substance abuse. By providing all the necessary services in this network of local programs, CoC supports those with the potential to live independently, and provides safe, specific, and permanent care for those who need it effectively serving all spectrums of homelessness.
CoC provides communities with a road map for bringing all these groups to the forefront to identify needs, resources, and gaps in housing and services in order to develop a local delivery system, and leverage private resources. Working with local governments and community groups, HUD maximizes the resources available to combat homelessness with counseling, rehabilitation, and practical assistance. The program has helped thousands of homeless individuals and families make the difficult transition from the streets and shelters to jobs, residential stability, and more secure lives. By addressing the underlying issues of homelessness, HUD has found a more effective, long-term solution to stabilize and improve people's lives.
The impact has been dramatic. Five years ago, America's national strategy on homelessness was characterized by a non-unified approach thus no national partners, no coordinated planning, and little money being leveraged. In 1999, 78 percent of the U.S. population resides in communities with Continuum strategies, and the program is helping as many as 14 times more people move from the streets and shelters to self-sufficiency with just twice the federal resources. Approximately 300,000 people have moved to permanent housing as a result of CoC funding.