Once upon a time, our federal government created HUD, a Social Security system that wasn’t a slush fund, and the Works Progress Administration — all without having to write a single 10-year plan, and these programs actually worked! The federal government made the growth of the middle class a post-war priority, thereby ending decades of structural homelessness.
That was then, and this is now.
After 20 years, HUD has finally come around to agreeing with Coalition for the Homeless founder Bob Hayes that the answer to homelessness is “housing, housing, housing.” But only for the chronically homeless. And only if local government and private philanthropy pick up the check.
2007 marks the 20th anniversary of the federal government’s only substantial response to contemporary homelessness, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. Homeless advocates have been marching for themselves ever since. Our most influential policy organizations are so closely allied with the Bush Administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) that it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart.
The Republicans may have lost Congress, but “compassionate conservatives” still control the debate on homelessness. The critical reassessment that should have come with the 2006 elections has been slow to arrive.
ICH executive director Philip Mangano is still the number-one authority on the issue, and he comes backed by the White House, HUD, and their policy allies in the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) and the Corporation for Supportive Housing.
Immediately after last November’s elections, Mangano and NAEH leadership met with editorial boards and local officials across the country to shore up support for ICH’s Ten Year Plan approach to homelessness. Their message — that local government and charity can end homelessness by focusing on the most dysfunctional people — avoids discussing the federal government’s assault on housing and sidelines the issues of rising poverty and inequality.
The annual competition for McKinney money pits those who serve various homeless subpopulations against each other in a fight for less than $1.4 billion in homeless assistance funding, right along with whatever other remaining scraps are on the HUD table. There are more than 470 Homeless Planning Boards and more than 200 10-year plans already in place, and they are all lining up to qualify for the same inadequate — though desperately needed — federal dollars.
“$100 million was added to homeless assistance!” says ICH. “We care. We really do.”
They don’t mention the $290 million cut from public housing operating expenses, or the thousands of security and maintenance workers laid-off from Public Housing Authorities, or the vacant units being sold off rather than renovated and rented to poor people. They don’t talk about the 100,000 public housing units lost between 1996 and 2005 nationwide. They certainly don’t talk about the zero funding for new public housing since 1996, and they are a bit reticent about the 4,000 undamaged public housing units being destroyed in New Orleans along with those that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“Chronic homelessness,” they say, “is the problem. Once we solve that, there will be more for the other 90 percent of you.”
As our nation achieves greater and greater levels of inequality, the wealthiest five percent have rediscovered the convenience of urban living. But they have brought their suburban comfort zones with them.
Using McKinney money, NAEH and ICH have advocated Ten Year Plan strategies to enhance the “safety and attractiveness” of urban centers. The federal government’s intense preoccupation with the visibly homeless aligns perfectly with the trend toward more aggressive policing of downtown areas.
In the meantime, six in 10 federal housing dollars are directed toward mortgage lenders and wealthier households, and $122 billion a year goes to homeownership tax incentives, while those pesky poor people who need a place to rent can make do with the less than $30 billion allocated to HUD.
After 20 years of writing plan after plan after plan on how “best” to spend McKinney money and “end homelessness,” there hasn’t been one damn plan to restore cuts to federal funding for affordable housing, which are what got us here in the first place.
After 20 years, it’s time to stop buying into the federal shell game and to start thinking beyond McKinney as a framework for addressing homelessness.
Tell Congress, tell the White House, tell anyone and everyone who’ll listen, and write it to those who won’t:
Nothing ends homelessness like having a home.
By PAUL BODEN, Western Regional Advocacy Project
Paul Boden is executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of West Coast social justice-based homelessness organizations of which Real Change is a member. To see WRAP’s impassioned and well-documented report on a quarter century of cuts to homeless assistance programs, Without Housing, go to www.wraphome.org