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How Can Social Marketing Help Reduce Homelessness in the United States?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nancy R. Lee
November 10, 2023

Imagine a world where citizens eagerly adopt behaviors that public sector managers advocate for to improve public health, prevent injuries, protect the environment and engage communities. This is a world that Social Marketing can help you create. This is my fifth column highlighting Social Marketing, a proven discipline to influence behaviors for social good.

This column will illustrate a social marketing approach to reducing homelessness in the United States, beginning with a few statistics that inform and inspire strategic interventions.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness reported the following count in January of 2022 :

  • 532,462 people were experiencing homelessness across America, almost 2 per 1000
  • Among them, 72 percent were individuals and 28 percent were people in families.

The report highlights major factors correlated with homelessness including low income, mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence. Additional data revealed several groups with the highest homeless incidence relative to U.S. population size:

  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Black or African American, American Indian/Alaska Natives
  • Males
  • Veterans

The report then emphasized that “these findings reinforce the urgency for homeless systems across the nation to intentionally identify disparities within their own systems, including a lack of culturally responsive outreach services to people they serve.”

One of the most referenced solutions to homelessness is the Housing First model, described by the National Alliance to End Homelessness as an approach that prioritizes “shelter first”, providing a platform that people need for basic necessities like food and shelter. This increased stability then makes it more likely they will attempt to get a job, accept mental health services and/or enter a drug rehabilitation program. This model does not require people experiencing homelessness to have a job or accept social services prior to entering a shelter. As the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness states on their website, this strategy reduces barriers for applicants with substance use issues, poor financial history or past involvement with the criminal justice system. This strategy is considered a Social Marketing approach given its focus on removing the barriers surrounding a desired/ beneficial behavior such as accepting shelter.

The following are examples of using a shelter first approach tailored to three unique segments within the homeless population. As noted, intervention strategies need to be designed to overcome unique barriers, as well as to integrate cultural and lifestyle factors.


An article on the CNN HEROES website in June of 2023 stated that between 2020 and 2022 Oregon had seen a 22 percent increase in homelessness, one of the largest increases in the nation. In addition Oregon had the highest percentage of unsheltered families with children. Fortunately, in 2018, a nonprofit, Path Home, bought an old church and transformed it into a “one-stop shelter” uniquely designed to help families have a sense of emotional, physical and psychological safety, supporting mental and physical recovery. The shelter provides private bedrooms for families and common areas including: a children’s play area, a library, a computer lab and a garden. In addition, families take evidence-based classes to learn new skills to help get and keep permanent housing. Path Home reported that in 2022 they had helped 360 families find housing, and that 87 percent of them remained in them long-term.


A publication in 2022 by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness promoted 10 Strategies to End Veteran Homelessness, one of which illustrates a social marketing approach, a Housing First System Orientation and Response. Communities are encouraged to remove as many barriers to housing and services for veterans by accepting applicants “regardless of their sobriety or use of substances, poor financial history or past involvement with the criminal justice system.” This then will lead to acceptance of the support they need to stay housed including: health care, job training, legal and education assistance. In 2022, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that there was an 11 percent decline in Veteran Homelessness since 2020, concluding this progress was made by prioritizing getting a veteran into housing which increased their subsequent acceptance of needed and available support services.

Low Income Seniors

One major barrier to housing for low income seniors can be that of having an extensive criminal background. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development highlights the Emergency Housing Voucher (EHV) program as a significant opportunity to address the needs of vulnerable populations such as these seniors. One example in Arizona in 2022 was a 63-year-old African American senior whose multiple applications for housing had been denied due to his extensive criminal background. The Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) provided support, assisting the senior with applying for an EHV, resulting in an opportunity for permanent housing in an apartment complex. He expressed his gratitude to the case manager for this assistance in removing his barriers to housing.

Author: Nancy R. Lee is an affiliate instructor at the University of Washington where she teaches courses in social marketing; a professional certificate course instructor for the International Social Marketing Association; president of Social Marketing Services, Inc.; a strategic advisor for C+C; and a coauthor of 13 books on social marketing with Philip Kotler. Email: [email protected]

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