Understanding — and solving — homelessness: Q&A with Carolina Reid
Carolina Reid investigates the structural foundations of homelessness and various approaches to developing affordable and permanent supportive housing in California. The I. Donald Terner Distinguished Professor in Affordable Housing and Urban Policy, Reid aims to guide policy decisions regarding the ongoing homelessness crisis.
Your background is in affordable housing and mortgage finance. Why have you shifted some of your research to the issue of homelessness?
First and foremost, the scale of the humanitarian crisis in California , and its relationship to the lack of affordable housing, made me want to think about how we need to change housing policy to make the system work better. More than 170,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in California, and nearly 70% of them are unsheltered. Many are children in families, showing the complete failure of our social safety net system.
What specific avenues of research are you following ?
I’m most interested in how the system could work better. California is now directing unprecedented levels of funding to address the crisis, particularly through funds dedicated to expanding the supply of affordable and permanent supportive housing. But we’re still seeing the number of people experiencing homelessness increase. This raises critical questions, like: What are the factors that are leading more people to becoming unhoused? What are the barriers to building affordable housing for communities most in need? How does fragmentation in programs and funding lead to inefficiencies and frictions that prevent the system from being as effective as it could be?
And I think we need to make a stronger case for how access to affordable housing impacts long-term well-being — making these investments in housing has broad benefits for society.
Can you share some of your recent work?
My colleagues and I at the Terner Center have greatly expanded the work we do on homelessness in California, looking at the crisis from different perspectives to help guide policy decisions. We recently partnered with All Home, a nonprofit that takes a regional approach to addressing homelessness in the Bay Area. Our research helped highlight how extremely low-income households in the Bay Area are vulnerable to becoming unhoused, and how both housing affordability and low wages are contributing to the crisis.
We are also interested in looking at solutions. We recently completed a study looking at efforts during the pandemic to convert hotels into housing for people experiencing homelessness. And we published a case study of an innovative project in San Francisco [833 Bryant Street; image above] that used modular housing to build permanent supportive housing faster and at a lower cost than traditional affordable housing.
We are currently partnering with the California Interagency Council on Homelessness to assess the state’s programs directed at supporting people experiencing homelessness. And we continue to study the issues relating to where homelessness in California is growing most rapidly, the challenges of building and operating permanent supportive housing, and the role that emergency housing vouchers play in addressing homelessness.
What are some of the lessons that emerged from that research?
One key finding is that we need to get much better at preventing homelessness and reducing housing cost burdens, especially for extremely low-income households. We will not solve the crisis as long as the inflow into homelessness is greater than the number of people we can help once they become unhoused.
Second, punitive approaches such as clearing encampments do not solve the underlying problem — they just add to trauma, lack of trust, and poor outcomes for both individuals and communities.
Third, there are a lot of innovative approaches emerging, and we are building more permanent supportive housing than ever before. This is really hopeful, but the system remains fragmented and under-resourced, leading to a lot of people not getting the help they need. We’re not investing enough in supportive services or the people working at the frontlines of the crisis to sustain long-term operations.
What other research is needed as we continue to confront homelessness in California?
There’s so much more that could be done in this area! One thing we’re really interested in understanding better is how new models of interim housing — such as tiny homes and noncongregate shelters like hotels — support people’s transition into permanent housing.
We’re also interested in understanding the “supportive” side of permanent supportive housing: How do we best ensure that people and families are successful in retaining their housing and improving their well-being over time? Finally, we need more research on how to best target prevention efforts so that additional people don’t have to endure the harms associated with homelessness.