Homelessness is a System Design Failure

Triangle Family Services (TFS) recently brought our “brand of services” to an innovative Hotel 2 Housing project, utilizing CARES Act funding in partnership with Wake County. In the midst of COVID-19, TFS collaborated with about 25 agencies to create a one-stop shop for wrap-around services leading to supportive housing. In under five months, 130 chronically homeless people were housed; more than one person per workday.

This project, in addition to the many emergency housing programs we’ve led over the years, got us thinking about the many myths and stigmas around homelessness:

Myth: Homelessness is an individual failure, a lack of desire “to pull oneself up by the bootstraps” and improve one’s condition in life.

“Homelessness is a massive system design failure, not an individual problem. It is a form of hyper-invisibility, where people experiencing homelessness are hidden in plain sight…[this societal problem is exacerbated] by the entrenched indifference of society.”

These are wise words shared recently by NY Times business and economics writer Binyamin Appelbaum at an event hosted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

There are currently around 9,300 people experiencing homelessness in North Carolina, most as a result of a variety of systemic issues, including access to education, poverty, incarceration and rising housing costs.2 These are societal-induced impediments to housing; they do not represent a lack of individual desire. As a forward-looking society with the advanced modern toolkit of data collection, ingenuity, analysis and forecasting, we can design homelessness out of existence.

Myth: If we had more affordable housing units, we could eradicate homelessness.

Many community partners across North America have committed to increasing the affordable housing supply. This is only a partial answer, however, as residents struggle to obtain enough income and supportive services to maintain their housing.

Foundations for Social Change (FSC) in Vancouver, Canada recently launched the world’s first direct cash transfer program to move people beyond homelessness. It rested on a simple question: what would happen if we gave out cash? The New Leaf Project was born, distributing a one-time cash transfer of $7,500 to people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver and comparing results to a non-cash control group. Over 100 participants were selected based on eligibility criteria, including age, citizenship, and degree of functionality (mental health and severity of substance and alcohol use).3

Let’s look at the results of the study to dispel the biggest myths of all.

Myth: If we give cash to the homeless, they will spend frivolously.


  • On average, cash recipients spent 52% of their budget on food and rent, 15% on “other” items such as medications and bills, and 16% on clothes and transportation
  • Cash recipients spent an additional $700 on one-time household items during the first 3 months, compared to non-cash participants


  • After 1 month, cash recipients had an additional $4,000 in savings
  • Cash recipients retained an additional $1,000 of the $7,500 cash transfer after 12 months

Myth: If we give cash to the homeless, they will buy drugs and alcohol.

Financial Choices

  • There was a 39% reduction in spending of goods such as alcohol, drugs or cigarettes in the cash group

Food Security

  • 67% of cash recipients were food secure after 1 month, an increase of 37% from baseline
  • The non-cash group only increased by 2% during the same period

Perhaps the most surprising statistic of all: participants who obtained stable housing displayed a 13% increase in cognitive functioning and executive decision making, showing that the stress of living in chronic homelessness and poverty actually diminishes one’s thought process and decision-making capabilities.

Myth: There is no solution for homelessness, and any real efforts are too expensive to pursue.

We have test cases, state–by-state comparisons, and an ever-increasing wealth of data and knowledge. What we need now are providers who understand the issue well enough to develop enduring solutions. We need community leaders and conveners, with adequate funding to support initiatives with proven outcomes, rather than more testing on a vulnerable population.

Helping families in crisis is at our core. Triangle Family Services’ mission: Building a stronger community by strengthening the family since 1937.   Our approach:  Trauma-informed care.


  1. “Why Health Insurance is Important,” www.healthcare.gov 2018; “Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration,” Bureau of Prisons 2018; “Running from Homelessness,” Governing 2009; https://www.greendoors.org/facts/cost.php
  2. State of Homelessness, 2020 Edition by National Alliance to End Homelessness, https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness-2020/
  3. https://forsocialchange.org/new-leaf-project-overview