The Alumni Interview: Nan Roman

Nan Roman ’74 las, ma ’75 las, who has worked on housing issues for decades, says the nation is working smarter to solve homelessness. (Photo by Katherine Lambert)
The president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness is convinced the problem can be solved—though not as quickly as the nation would like.

My first exposure to homelessness was in the ’80s, here in Washington, D.C. I was working in a Capitol Hill community organization that served public housing residents. I started seeing people sleeping on the steam grates. That was a first.

When I started working on urban issues in the ’70s, you could get somebody who lost their housing into another apartment the same day. We had a surfeit of affordable housing units then. That’s what’s changed. Today, as a nation, we have a huge deficit of affordable housing. There aren’t nearly enough apartments for all the low-income people who need them, and it can take a really long time to get someone into housing.

Most people are homeless for economic reasons. It’s only a minority of people who fit the stereotype of homelessness—someone with a mental illness or a substance-abuse problem who’s homeless for a long time. They represent just 20 percent of the population. They need more help, though—permanent housing subsidies and services.

Obviously, nobody does anything alone, but the Alliance has definitely had a role in the fact that homelessness has gone down over the past few years. We’ve worked hard to get more federal money to solve the problem.

We also use research and data to figure out if there are smarter approaches. There’s a new intervention for homeless families called Rapid Rehousing, and since it has better outcomes at a lower cost, we’ve been pushing hard for that. There’s a lot of interest in helping veterans, and that’s been a big success story. We’re focused now on two parts of the population that have been neglected: youth and single adults who don’t have a disability. The latter is actually the majority of homeless people. We need better ways to help both of those groups.

At the end of the day, the driver is housing affordability—despite all their other problems, that’s why people become homeless. Sadly, as a nation, we’re not making any ground on that. Until we do something about housing, we’re still going to have people becoming homeless. But we could get them back into housing faster.

Obviously, the University of Illinois was important in my life. It’s a time when you’re so open to everything. I was influenced by so many people there, and of course by what I learned. There’s no question I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing or be where I am without that.

When I attended Illinois, I studied cultural anthropology. I developed an interest in communities and how people live their everyday lives and address problems. The reason I got involved in homelessness—and what still keeps me at it—is that it’s a problem that seems so eminently solvable. It’s not that big—just over 600,000 people each night. And for most people it’s a short-term experience.

I came to the Alliance in 1987 as a policy person; it was called the Committee for Food and Shelter then. Once it became clear that homelessness was not just a temporary problem, we changed our name to National Alliance to End Homelessness and started focusing on solutions. We take a pretty practical approach, breaking the problem into solvable pieces, basically by population, and determining who needs what, the costs and how to build the infrastructure in terms of federal policy and local capacity to solve.

Homelessness affects all of us. It affects our economy because it has costs, and because people who don’t have a place to live have a hard time contributing economically. It corrodes our social fabric to leave people, especially people who are ill, on the streets. It challenges us on a human level, as so many of us see and interact with people who are homeless on a daily basis. It affects us all.

But it’s not an unsolvable problem. Despite the recession of 2009 and the fact that there’s no affordable housing, the number of homeless people has gone down 20 percent since 2005. Why? It’s because we are working smarter and focusing on solutions. People are energized to be solving a problem. It’s easier to get people to invest in something that works.

I remain convinced that we can end homelessness. We’re moving in the right direction, though not as fast as I would like. But I know we will get there.