The US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) recently released a new strategic plan to end homelessness called Expanding the Toolbox: The Whole-of-Government Response to Homelessness. Unfortunately, it is not a plan. Instead, it is an expansive list of recommendations that ignores the root causes of homelessness and disregards 30 years of evidence about what works.
No one chooses to be homeless, but this “plan” takes us back to the 1980s when people experiencing homelessness were blamed for making poor choices and the federal response focused on fixing the people, rather than fixing the systems that allow them to become homeless in the first place. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, given the range of harmful policies advanced by the current administration, including crippling HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, taking away a family’s rental subsidy if the household has mixed immigration status, instituting work requirements when the majority of voucher holders are elderly or disabled, or denying equal access to shelter and services based on gender identity.
In Expanding the Toolbox USICH promises to tackle the “real root causes” of homelessness, which, according to the agency, includes “substance use disorders, mental health issues, domestic violence, trauma and stress related disorders, economic family factors, etc.” These are symptoms of homelessness, not root causes, and it is tremendously alarming that the federal agency responsible for our national response to homelessness does not understand the difference.
Just as the pandemic has exposed racial and economic injustices, and the videoed murders of innocent black people has laid bare the country’s deep racial biases, homelessness is another glaring symptom of policies within the housing, workforce, economic, healthcare, criminal justice and education systems that fail to deliver equal access and services to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
USICH correctly states that Black people comprise only 13.1% of the U.S. population but over 40% of people experiencing homelessness. This stark disparity, in and of itself, should prompt all of us to beg the question “Why?” until we get to its root. Given the magnitude of the disparity, any agency committed to ending homelessness should understand that we must focus on addressing homelessness among Black people if we ever expect to end it for everyone. When the issue of race is finally raised on page 23, the strategy doesn’t outline a plan to address racial disparities, opting instead to offer up a wish list of things that ‘should happen.’
The plan could offer concrete strategies to address the enormous gap between what people earn and the cost of housing, but it doesn’t. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach 2020, a full-time worker needs to earn $23.96 and hour, on average, to afford a modest two-bedroom rental. That’s $16.71 higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. In California, people need to earn $36.96 an hour to afford a two-bedroom rental or work 114 hours a week at the state’s minimum wage. People simply cannot afford places to live.
Finally, USICH makes dishonest claims about Housing First. It is not and has never been a “one size fits all” approach. Housing First recognizes that people cannot get work, properly treat substance abuse or mental health disorders or stabilize their lives if they do not have a stable home. In the Housing First model, each person moves at their own pace, receiving individualized services according to their need. Former USICH Executive Director Barbara Poppe described it as, “the right dose” of services.
Not only is Housing First proven to have lower costs than other interventions such as transitional housing, studies show Housing First reduces re-entry into the justice system. According to the Urban Institute’s Housing Matters initiative: “Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, like other jurisdictions, implemented Housing First to reduce reentry to jail. Milwaukee found that after a year of service delivery, municipal violations decreased by 82%, and the number of people experiencing homelessness decreased from 1,521 to 900. Results showed a decrease in the use of jail beds and a decrease in homelessness, housing instability, and overall costs to the system.”
Ironically, the USICH plan highlights the notable reductions in veteran homelessness by citing programs that utilized the Housing First model. “In 2011, the Department of Veteran Affairs tested the Housing First model at 14 HUD-VASH sites. Based on a 36-month evaluation of the Housing First Pilot Initiative, the VA Homeless Program Office made an executive decision to implement Housing First nationwide in the HUD-VASH Program.” The VA stated that, “Housing First is an evidence-based, cost-effective approach to ending homelessness for the most vulnerable and chronically homeless individuals.” According to the 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, veteran homelessness declined by 46% between 2009 and 2016 because ending Veteran homelessness was made a priority, and ample resources were put towards Housing First. Since 2017 Veteran homelessness has declined only 6%.
Why does USICH suddenly consider Housing First to be a failed approach?
USICH is charged with coordinating the federal response to prevent and end homelessness across its 19-member government agencies yet Expanding the Toolbox fails to outline how the agency will work with other federal agencies to do it. If USICH was truly interested in the dignity of work and self-sufficiency, it would have detailed how it would collaborate with the Department of Labor to create a living wage and provide viable pathways to employment. It would spell out its partnership with the Department of Education to ensure everyone has quality education and training so this generation and the next can earn a living wage. It would outline a strategy in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services to address health disparities in BIPOC communities and ensure everyone, regardless of income, has access to quality healthcare. It would ensure people don’t go bankrupt over healthcare costs.
THAT would be a plan. Instead, USICH is ignoring the systemic reasons for homelessness, and shifting blame to the most vulnerable while advancing failed approaches and ever more troubling policies. All Americans, and particularly the people USICH is supposed to serve, deserve better.