Popov Investigates Homeless Programs

By Tanzeen Doha - On September 30, 2016, Igor Popov, an economist trained at Stanford University, kicked off this year’s UC Davis Center for Poverty Research seminar series. Popov’s presentation drew on data related to homelessness, and explored social programs that aim to reduce poverty and social dependency.

Popov began with some sobering facts. He stated that 1.5 million Americans depend on homeless services, 600,000 are homeless on any given day, and 200,000 do not find shelter on any given night.

He then compared the effectiveness of programs that target individual homeless people with those that serve whole families. He argued that individual programs “reduce unsheltered homelessness without drawing others into the local homeless population” while the expansion of family programs frequently leads homeless families from outside communities to “migrate” to the area in order to access services.

Two conventional approaches to the problem of homelessness exist, Popov said. The first calls for increases in funding, insisting that the most effective way to fight homelessness is to provide more housing. The second holds that such increases fail to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

Families and individuals

In Popov’s view, while there have been many studies about behavioral responses to “social insurance generosity,” few have investigated the “causal effect of homeless assistance funding on the size, composition, and behavior of homeless populations.”

Further, stereotypical images of homelessness do not align with true homeless demographics. The entrenched image of the deinstitutionalized, chronically homeless individual does not reflect today's reality, when over a third of the homeless population is comprised of families.

Transferring, not reducing

Funding, Popov noted, has no real effect on the total number of homeless individuals. In fact, permanent supportive housing actually attracts non-chronically homeless families, instead of bringing more individuals to local homeless programs, merely transferring—rather than reducing—the total number of homeless people. 

Because family homelessness resides between “private social support networks and publicly funded programs,” the expansion of family-based homeless programs enables families to transition from staying temporarily with other family members to living in shelters.

This, Popov said, is a good thing, since “shouldering family and friends of struggling families with the burden of housing them is a very regressive policy because income and opportunity are correlated within social networks.”

Towards better targeting

Rather than prescribe a broad solution for reducing homelessness, Popov called for more effective targeting of subpopulations. With his own statistical analysis focusing on solutions potentially available through existing “social safety” programs, his presentation aptly highlighted the differences between individual and family responses to such programs, and the wider implications of those differences for policy makers.

Learn more about Igor Popov.

Learn more about the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.