This month marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the federal government’s first and still most dominant program to alleviate homelessness in America. Why, then, do we still see so many homeless people on our streets? Why do we hear about the “invisible homeless” — the individuals and families who have lost their homes and had to move in with others, sleep in cars or bounce from motel to shelter to hotel?
The short answer is: Because there is not enough housing. Since 1979, the federal government has reduced subsidized affordable housing by $52 billion. Between 1996 and 2005, 100,000 public housing units have been lost and there has been zero funding for new public housing since 1996. When people can no longer afford the cost of housing, they must live without housing and thus they become “the homeless.”
The longer answer is that what is now known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act had its hands tied from the very beginning. It was never given the power to stem the growing tide of people who joined the ranks of the poor following budget cutbacks to federal agencies responsible for addressing poverty.
Here is how it worked. The last 20 years have seen huge cutbacks in the rolls for Social Security Insurance (SSI), a stagnant minimum wage and other reductions in funding for poverty programs. As financial support disappeared for more and more people, poverty spread. At the same time, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department’s affordable housing programs were decimated. The McKinney legislation was never designed to deal with these underlying causes of homelessness. Or, put another way, it was never designed to overcome these barriers to ending homelessness.
When McKinney was signed into law in 1987, homelessness was just beginning to be recognized as a national issue. Local communities had already established emergency shelters and services, and many had set up task forces or councils to coordinate services and write plans to reduce homelessness. The McKinney Act first focused on the emergency needs of homeless people in local communities — beds, blankets and Band-Aids — hence its name at the time, the “Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act.” It did not regulate how long people had to be homeless to qualify. It did not require communities to discriminate between families and individuals. It did not pretend to be a housing program.
Over the years, however, and given the mushrooming numbers of poor people, McKinney applications have forced a variety of homeless subpopulations to compete for woefully inadequate funds. For example, now HUD’s system for scoring community’s applications for McKinney funds are weighted in favor of housing “chronically homeless” individuals versus homeless families with children. In fact, HUD scores a community’s plan success in creating permanent housing for people who are chronically homeless, but does not even require communities to include in its applications its strategies for creating permanent housing units for families with children and individuals who are not chronically homeless.
It has become a zero-sum game, with children, families and single individuals competing against each other for a small pot of funds. As housing and services are made more available to one group, resources are drained from others.
These strategies shift homelessness but have no chance whatsoever of ending it, and it places cruel burdens on communities.
The McKinney Act has done some good for some people but it has not significantly reduced homelessness across the country. How could it? A $1.4 billion a year homelessness budget cannot compensate for a $52 billion a year reduction in affordable housing.
Urgent relief is needed. What’s to be done? As a private citizen, what can you do? You can:
1. Insist any political candidate seeking your support explain how he or she would return McKinney to its original “urgent relief” function.
2. Insist that any candidate seeking your support explain how he or she would ensure that the federal departments of HUD, Health, Education and Labor would revitalize programs that once served poor people.
3. You can write, e-mail or telephone your favored candidate and demand that a comprehensive plan to end mass homelessness in America be a major plank in the national parties’ platforms. Think New Deal.
Paul Boden is executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.