“What do we want?” HOUSING! “When do we want it?” NOW!
Through the ’80s and well into the next decade, this chant was the front- and -center demand at nearly every march to end homelessness across the United States. The largest of these was the 1989 Housing NOW! march, which brought more than 300,000 to Washington D.C.
The march was part of a national campaign that brought an expansion of the McKinney-Vento Act. Since 1987, this legislation has been the federal framework for funding homeless programs. After more than 25 years, the annual McKinney allocation sits at about $2.1 billion.
We asked for “Housing Now.” We never got it. We got “Housing First.” Housing First tastes good and has fewer calories.
Instead of getting housing, we got money to fund homelessness. We built a whole industry on it.
Back in the ’80s, the bones of today’s emergency response system got built in a hurry as shelters struggled to keep up with federal disinvestment in public housing and human services.
Funding for federal housing programs through Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reached a highpoint of $84 billion in 1978. By 1983, that number had plunged to $18 billion and in later years would drop even lower.
The HUD budget, after mostly rising since 2001, now sits at about $46 billion, but funding for federal housing still falls far short of need.
When Seattle Housing Authority announced a lottery last year for 2,000 Section 8 housing vouchers, more that 23,000 people applied. It will be a good while before even the winners see any housing. Section 8 vouchers are targeted for reduction in the federal budget now before Congress.
The federal commitment to affordable housing remains half-hearted.
Even well-run public housing agencies are chronically underfunded and still struggle to recover from the starvation of prior decades.
Policies such as HOPE VI, which prioritize mixed-income housing development and privatization of public assets in places like Yesler Terrace, have resulted in large losses of public housing units.
The Moving to Work program threatens increases in public housing rents and escalating work requirements that could churn the rolls at the expense of the vulnerable.
This isn’t what a nation committed to housing its most poor looks like.
Everyone from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to President Barack Obama agrees that the answer to homelessness is housing.
Everyone agrees that the more we can prevent people from becoming homeless at all or get them into housing quickly when they do, the better the outcomes for everyone.
We all agree that even the most hardened street alcoholics do best and their treatment costs less when housed.
But we fall far short in our commitment.
If homelessness is ever to become “rare, brief, and one time,” as the new federally ordained mantra has it, we need to move from homeless crisis intervention to a massive reinvestment in public housing. Housing First does work. You just need enough of it.
We can build our way out of homelessness. A good place to start would be to invest the $1 billion in the Federal Housing Trust Fund that’s recommended by Obama for the next HUD budget. That’s barely the beginning of what’s needed.
This is where that $2.1 billion in federal homeless funding starts to look like chump change. When stacked up against all the federal housing funding that’s been lost, we’re getting pennies on the dollar.
Last week, as part of KUOW’s series on the Ten Year Plan’s failure to reduce homelessness, Downtown Emergency Service Center director Bill Hobson made an informed guess that it might take about a billion dollars to build the housing we need in Washington state alone.
Big commitments to housing: That’s the point at which the brief, infrequent, one-time rhetoric becomes more than a comforting vision and turns into something real.
Until we have that, we’re just managing the homelessness biz and calling it something else.