In June, the Building Bridges blog launched a new series devoted to unpacking some of the most misunderstood housing and homelessness terms and concepts. Earlier posts in the series covered the topics of “Housing First;” Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (or NOAH); the role of supportive services in the work to end and prevent homelessness; and most recently, a series on the common myths and misperceptions about affordable housing, including a post on deeply affordable housing.
These posts are inspired by the 2025 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy (CMHHS), which was launched in April 2021 to stakeholders and the community connect, invest and advance the work of CMHHS. The 2025 CMHHS represents the first time that the public and private sectors have come together to comprehensively address the entire housing continuum, from housing instability to homelessness, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Advancing widescale solutions – even the ones backed by research and data – also means overcoming obstacles that have historically gotten in the way. Some obstacles take the shape of myths or misconceptions.
This week’s post, which will close out this iteration of the myth-busting series, focuses on the link between homelessness and housing; how (and why) the two tend to be decoupled; and ultimately, what all of this means for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
ONE, A PROBLEM; THE OTHER, A SOLUTION
Homelessness, by definition, is simply the loss or lack of housing.
Put simply, housing is, therefore, the only way to solve homelessness.
IF ONE SOLVES THE OTHER, WHY IS THERE A DISCONNECT?
If homelessness is the loss or lack of housing then, conversely, it is the loss or lack of housing that causes homelessness. And the loss or lack of housing is related to systemic and structural factors, such as historical and structural racism; high housing costs; low wages, especially relative to the cost of housing; and the sheer lack of available and affordable housing units, especially for those households who have the lowest incomes.
However, the conversation too often goes off track, instead centering individual-level causes. This line of thinking ends in the conviction that the homeless individual needs fixing in order to access (or even “deserve”) housing. Crucially, can “fixing the individual” occur separate and apart from the provision of housing? Worse, does it occur at the expense of the provision of housing?
The first myth addressed in this series covered Housing First, which demonstrates through more than twenty years of data and research that providing housing first, and then wrapping an individual with the supportive services necessary, is the most effective path. Not only is it the most humane model, but it is also the most fiscally responsible one. The earlier blog states, “Mental health issues and substance abuse are challenges that can (and do) affect anyone – housed or not. Why should we treat households experiencing homelessness any differently just because of these factors? Homelessness, as defined in its simplest form, is the lack of housing. Homelessness is, at bottom, a housing problem.”
IF DISCONNECTED, CAN THERE EVER BE REAL PROGRESS?
If housing solves homelessness, how can one entity solely be focused on homelessness (and actually end homelessness) and another on housing (without serving the people who are experiencing homelessness)?
In recent years, and especially in response to COVID-19, the need to address both housing instability and homelessness has gained wider attention and more directed energy. What has followed is an increased investment in, and focus on, expanding affordable housing solutions – of all types and sizes. Advancing affordable housing has come to be viewed as something that is good for the broader economy: access to available affordable housing serves as the basis in which households are able to grow and thrive; this, ultimately, is the foundation for a strong community.
In addition, more communities are exploring upstream interventions like prevention to help households before they even lose their housing. However, addressing complex problems like housing instability and homelessness can appear, at first, impossible. In fact, some communities choose to break the problem down for various reasons, focusing on an individual components such as chronic or veteran homelessness. Others choose to tackle what is visible, like unsheltered homelessness.
Parsing homelessness and homelessness only perpetuates the myths and misperceptions about the real problem and keeps communities from being able to implement effective solutions.
Think about a ship approaching an iceberg. Typically, the bulk of the iceberg hides below the water. If the ship only attends to the part of the iceberg that it can see above the water, it can result in disaster. Similarly, communities risk failure if they do not consider the entirety of the problem: from housing instability to homelessness.
If we know the real cause of homelessness (lack of housing), then why have more communities not solved the problem? Knowing the answer is, really, only half the battle.
Doing something about it is the other half. But whose problem is it, really? Is it just the responsibility of the public sector? What about the private-for-profit sector? What obligations do businesses have to address housing instability and homelessness? How can companies, for instance, help their employees to close the gap between housing cost and household income?
What about the private-not-for-profit sector: faith communities, non-governmental organizations, and advocacy groups? How can these groups expand their impact beyond their potentially self-imposed boundaries? How can funders drive systemic change with their dollars to encourage individual organizations to enact their own changes?
The reality is that every aspect of a community, however community is defined, both owns a piece of the problem and is responsible for the solutions.
A problem as complex as housing instability and homelessness will never be eradicated by a single person, organization, charity, or governmental agency. Everyone is in the same boat.
Only when everyone is rowing in the same direction will our community realize comprehensive, sustainable solutions. This shared effort, then, becomes the real source of hope for arriving at real change.
To register for the final CMHHS Community Information and Feedback Sessions, which will be held virtually on October 5 and 8, please click this link.
To learn more about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy, please visit: www.charmeckhousingstrategy.com
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.