Andrea Meluzzi served in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. When he was honorably discharged after years of service to his country, he returned home to Connecticut with major health issues sustained during his deployment–a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Like too many of his fellow veterans, he soon became homeless. It’s a familiar story, but what happened next is a lesson for all Americans:
The V.A. assigned Meluzzi a counselor who got him the health care he needed and at the same time obtained a voucher for rental housing with support services just for veterans like him. Meluzzi now has a home, two cats, and is working at Home Depot. In his spare time, he volunteers with the V.A. to help other vets.
Meluzzi’s success has been replicated in communities across the country. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness was cut by an astounding 47% and as of January, more than 35 communities and the entire states of Connecticut, Delaware, and Virginia have effectively ended homelessness among veterans. This success isn’t limited to veterans; since 2010, we’ve reduced homelessness by 14% in the U.S., providing safety and stability to 87,000 men, women, and children.
This accomplishment, previously thought to be a pie-in-the-sky aspiration, was made possible by federal resources and leadership that are now severely threatened by the proposed federal budget plan. Federal investments and commitment leveraged a massive coordinated effort to end homelessness involving government at every level, nonprofit organizations working on the ground, and private funders supporting, demonstrating, and pushing to scale crucial evidence-based housing and human services innovations. But sadly, the system that ensured that Andrea Meluzzi was housed will quickly unravel if the proposed cuts in the federal budget are enacted.
The tangible and ongoing success our country has made in preventing and ending homelessness over the past decade demonstrates the critical need for genuine public-private partnerships to tackle vexing social problems.
For all of us working on homelessness, this has meant taking a hard look at data, resources, and results and recognizing that some of our long-established responses were simply not moving us toward our ultimate goal of ending homelessness. For example, the shelters that once constituted our primary response to homelessness now serve as triage centers, the first step along the way to ending a person’s homelessness.
Through years of research and testing, we learned that we could end homelessness for Americans in big cities and rural communities alike, by focusing on a few key proven strategies such as supportive housing, where housing is paired with social services for those dealing with complex medical, mental, and addiction disabilities, rental assistance for Americans not earning enough to afford even the lowest rent, and rapid re-housing where individuals and families can access short-term financial assistance and help to move quickly from homelessness to homes. With this knowledge and through the leadership and coordination of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the focus in our field has shifted toward comprehensive community responses that ensure that homelessness is prevented whenever possible, and where it can’t be prevented, is confined to rare and brief episodes.
Working toward this goal has meant vast changes in the relations between service providers, advocates, and public and private funders—a clear establishment of proven best practices, new levels of budgetary accountability, the creation of strong systems of technical assistance, and the emergence of new forms of collaboration between funders. These strategies were forged and tested within the terms of the new public-private partnerships that now increasingly form the fabric of our social safety net. The Interagency Council is, itself, a powerful response to these changes.
Over the past decade these new solutions and the partnerships that undergird them have repeatedly gained strong support from Republicans and Democrats alike. They have earned such support not simply because they are effective and cost-efficient solutions but because as the solutions have become more focused, it has also become clear just how pivotal housing is in addressing many other critical issues: reductions in homelessness are also reductions in crisis services, inpatient medical costs, recidivism, and so on. And as these connections have become clear, health care and other systems have been able to develop increasingly responsive strategies of their own—so, for example, the Affordable Care Act took major steps toward integrating health and housing in new and valuable ways.
In the context of these developments the administration’s budget proposes cuts so deep that they do not simply pose new difficulties: they are system-destroying. Nowhere is this signaled more clearly than in the budget’s outright abolition of the Interagency Council—a tiny agency ($3.5 million budget) in the context of the overall budget ($1.15 trillion proposed plan) that is central to any serious effort to address homelessness in the United States. Coupled with extreme cuts of over $7 billion to the Housing and Urban Development budget that threaten losses in rental vouchers that are already woefully underfunded, the budget plan effectively takes the goal of ending homelessness off the table and would push hundreds of thousands of individuals and families to the brink of homelessness. It will take years, if not decades, to recover from this at the systems level. It is a fundamental betrayal of complex public-private partnerships that have taken many years and extraordinary efforts to build and maintain.
Andrea Meluzzi is housed because he came home from war at the right time. But what about the next veteran? For this soldier, and thousands of other Americans that don’t have a place to call home, our federal government must continue to play a leading role in the effort to prevent end homelessness; we can’t go it alone.
Stephen Melville is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Melville Charitable Trust.
Amanda Andere is the CEO of Funders Together to End Homelessness.