In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Homelessness: Ending Homelessness as a Grand Challenge

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Books on Ending Homelessness: Policy Recommendations
  • Books on Assisting People Experiencing Homelessness
  • International Books
  • Journals
  • Special Organizations
  • International Organizations

Social Work Homelessness: Ending Homelessness as a Grand Challenge
Benjamin Henwood, Deborah Padgett, Sara Semborski
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0330


Homelessness in the United States has been a long-standing problem, but it became a national crisis in the 1980s as unprecedented numbers of individuals and families fell into deep poverty amid a rapidly shrinking stock of affordable housing. The persistence of this problem spurred a variety of emergency responses ranging from soup kitchens to temporary shelters. Despite well-intentioned outreach to help those most in need, the numbers of persons experiencing homelessness rose steadily as charitable groups and government officials struggled to keep pace. Initially, this focus on emergency services left little time for research and evaluation of different models of care. However, recent decades have witnessed the rise of empirically supported interventions to address homelessness. Although homelessness continues to be a national crisis, consensus has grown regarding the optimal means of ending homelessness rather than simply managing it. Summoning political will and bringing stakeholders to work together make this possible. The Grand Challenge to End Homelessness (GC2EH) was first introduced in 2015 as part of an ambitious social agenda sponsored by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. It was among twelve Grand Challenge proposals initially selected based on a number of criteria: that (a) it is an issue that is big, important, and compelling; (b) scientific evidence suggests that it is achievable; (c) its pursuit is likely to generate interdisciplinary or cross-sector collaboration; and (d) achieving it will require significant innovation. The GC2EH, which was built on existing efforts and a knowledge base of effective practices, was presented as a call to action to the social work profession to make significant progress toward ending homelessness in ten years. As an initiative, the GC2EH is decentralized such that anyone inspired by the challenge to address homelessness can do so under its auspices. At the start of the GC2EH initiative in 2016, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States had been steadily decreasing for nearly a decade, demonstrating that progress could be made. Unfortunately, this trend reversed in 2018, with national estimates increasing in the subsequent two years. As a result, there have been calls both in and outside of government to focus exclusively on policies and practices that have been shown to be effective—most notably, Housing First. Perhaps not surprisingly, there has also been opposition to Housing First as being too lenient in providing immediate access to housing without demands of conformity and sobriety. Since 2016, schools of social work have taken up the GC2EH through educational innovations, research collaborations, policy proposals, and university-community partnerships. These efforts represent building blocks toward the goal of ending homelessness.

Introductory Works

Modern-day homelessness in the United States first arose in the 1980s due to a confluence of events, including demographic shifts, a severe economic recession, divestment in affordable housing, and other policies that weakened the social safety net (Padgett, et al. 2016, cited under Textbooks). Ever since, social workers have played an important role as frontline providers assisting those experiencing homeless. Unfortunately, frontline providers have too often worked within programs or systems that, while well intentioned, are not effective or conducive to ending homelessness. This underscores the need for social workers to evaluate practice not only with individual clients but at the program or system level as well. Beyond evaluation is a need for leadership and policy change to address complex social problems such as homelessness. Proposals by Henwood, et al. 2015 to end homelessness as part of social work’s Grand Challenges had coauthors from four schools of social work and two coauthors from the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness, including Philip Mangano, the former executive director of the White House United States Interagency Council on Homelessness under President Bush. Mangano helped shape and lead the national strategy to prevent and end homelessness during a time when Housing First was being adopted as federal policy and a decrease in homelessness was documented, including a 37 percent decrease in street and chronic homelessness and a 17 percent overall decrease in homelessness between 2005 and 2009 (Henwood, et al. 2015). The GC2EH proposal argued that bringing Housing First to scale as an evidence-based practice for chronically homeless adults is needed, as this population was most needy in terms of mental illness, substance use, and physical disability. Ending homelessness for other distinct subpopulations (e.g., families, youth) would likely require less intensive measures, such as rental vouchers, employment assistance, and counseling (Shinn and Khadduri 2020, cited under Textbooks). Henwood, et al. 2022, an edited collection providing updates on each social work Grand Challenge, reviewed major initiatives or advances in workforce development and research that schools of social work across the United States had implemented to address homelessness. These included efforts by the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services (Larkin, et al. 2016) to strengthen social work curricula and workforce training to enhance working with homeless persons. The National Center also coordinated a special issue of the Journal of Social Work Education dedicated to the GC2EH (Henwood and Aykanian 2020). Noting that persistent institutional and structural factors, including systemic racism and wealth inequality, continue to perpetuate and exacerbate the problem of homelessness, the journal articles make clear that focusing on downstream interventions alone will not be sufficient to meet this Grand Challenge. In the months preceding the 2020 national elections, Padgett and Henwood published and widely distributed a user-friendly booklet of policy recommendations by leading experts (Padgett and Henwood 2020), all intended to bring congressional attention to the continuing plight of homeless persons and the evidence-based practices available to assist them.

  • Henwood, B. F., and A. Aykanian. 2020. Advancing social work education to meet the grand challenge of ending homelessness. Journal of Social Work Education 56 (Suppl. 1): S1–S3.

    DOI: 10.1080/10437797.2020.1744417

    Part of a special issue focused on addressing homelessness in the context of the GC2EH.

  • Henwood, B. F., E. Tiderington, A. Aykanian, and D. K. Padgett. 2022. Ending homelessness: Progress on a major and compelling challenge? In Grand challenges for social work and society. 2d ed. Edited by R. P. Barth, T. R. Shanks, J. Messing, and J. H. Williams, 95–123. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This chapter summarizes the first five years of the GC2EH initiative and the likelihood of achieving the Grand Challenge in the next five years.

  • Henwood, B. F., S. L. Wenzel, P. F. Mangano, et al. 2015. The grand challenge of ending homelessness. Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative Working Paper No. 9. Saint Louis, MO: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

    One of twelve papers selected from eighty concept papers submitted for the Grand Challenges initiative.

  • Larkin, H., B. Henwood, S. J. Fogel, et al. 2016. Responding to the Grand Challenge to End Homelessness: The national homelessness social work initiative. Families in Society 97.3: 153–159.

    DOI: 10.1606/1044-3894.2016.97.31

    Invited journal article that explains the logic model and describes the activities of the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services as it relates to the GC2EH.

  • Padgett, D. K., and B. F. Henwood. 2018. End homelessness. In Grand challenges for social work and society. Edited by R. Fong, J. Lubben, and R. P. Barth, 124–139. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Chapter written by the leads of the GC2EH initiative to be included in a textbook on the social work grand challenges.

  • Padgett, D. K., and B. F. Henwood. 2020. Social work’s Grand Challenge to End Homelessness: Policy proposals for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Baltimore: Grand Challenges for Social Work.

    Series of policy recommendations by homelessness experts intended to prompt discussion and solutions to the problem of homelessness during the 2020 presidential election race.

  • Uehara, E., M. Flynn, R. Fong, et al. 2013. Grand challenges for social work. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research 4.3: 165–170.

    DOI: 10.5243/jsswr.2013.11

    Article that first introduced the concept of Grand Challenges for Social Work as an organizing framework for social work scientists and practitioners.

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