Social Innovation

Navigating Homelessness: The Effect of Housing Navigation Centers on Recidivism

06.12.23 | 3 min read | Text by Michelle Rippy

Adequate resources, shelter, and opportunities for people to secure permanent housing are critical for alleviating homelessness and reducing recidivism rates. 

The unhoused population faces many challenges in securing housing, especially if they are justice-involved or suffering from mental health or substance abuse disorders. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report found that over 580,000 people were experiencing homelessness nationally, with 40% being unsheltered. There was a seven percent increase in sheltered homelessness from 2021 to 2022, possibly related to increasing housing capacity after COVID-19 restrictions. Unhoused persons are 514 times more likely to be arrested and charged with crimes when compared to the non-homeless population, and those who are released from prison have an average recidivism rate of 68% within three years. The cycle of crime and recidivism among unhoused persons can lead to significant challenges in receiving and maintaining permanent housing.

Promising policy tools like Housing Navigation Centers (HNC) are already showing great results. HNCs are a low-barrier intervention for unhoused populations to access services and focus on providing temporary housing while providing support to gain permanent housing. HNCs generally provide wrap-around services, including assisting with basic needs, case management, legal services, social services, career assistance, educational services, transportation assistance, mental health treatment, medical care, substance abuse treatment, and housing services.

California, which bears the brunt of the homelessness crisis (California holds 12% of the total US population but accounts for 30% of the nation’s homeless population and 50% of the unsheltered homeless population) has proved a great case study for the effectiveness of HNCs. 

From 2019 to 2022, there was a 22% increase in homelessness in Alameda County, CA, with 16% of people surveyed citing the pandemic as a cause for their homelessness. San Francisco, just north of Alameda County, had 6858 people experiencing homelessness in 2017, with 8035 people in 2019 (17.2% increase), and 7754 people in 2022 (3.5% decrease from 2019).

In 2019, wanting to provide support for people experiencing homelessness, the City of Hayward, seated in Alameda County, bid for and received a nearly $1M grant to create an HNC, as well as train law enforcement on diversion, and provide wrap-around housing. The grant goals, part of a larger state effort to lower recidivism rates and mass incarceration, included coordinating wrap-around services with extensive case management, providing permanent housing, and reducing homelessness. 

Across a three-year study conducted on the grant’s efficacy, 188 justice-involved individuals received housing at the HNC, and nearly 70% exited to permanent housing. Recidivism, defined as an arrest for a new felony or misdemeanor crime, was 9.6%, compared to an average recidivism rate of 68% within three years of release from prison

Using the federal definition of recidivism, 0% of participants received a conviction for a new felony or misdemeanor throughout the evaluation period, though some of this was due to pandemic-related changes in policing practices and COVID-19’s effect on slower court proceedings. The point-in-time count reflected a 21.8% decrease in homelessness in Hayward, despite a 21.5% increase in homelessness in Alameda County from 2019 to 2022, showing the HNC’s potential impact. A similar study in Los Angeles confirmed that housing assistance with long-term placement assistance reduced recidivism by 20% over an 18-month period, with non-housing services having no effect on recidivism.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness aims to reduce homelessness by 25% by 2025, focusing on equity, data, and collaboration. The solutions include housing and support services, and HNCs would be positioned to fulfill both of these roles.. As grant and private funding remain available, cities and jurisdictions should utilize HNCs to assist in reducing homelessness and recidivism while improving the quality of life for community members.