BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The new federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness, released yesterday by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), deviates in significant and disappointing ways from previous Obama and Trump Administration plans. Rather than directing communities and homelessness service providers to the best ways to use federal resources to prevent and end homelessness, it maligns past federal efforts, contradicts the Trump Administration’s own policies, and lacks enough detail to make implementation possible at either the federal or local levels.
This is the federal government’s third such plan, as required by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Specifically, USICH’s plan:
Misrepresents Housing First strategies and their effectiveness
The plan takes aim at Housing First, an evidence-based approach to serve people experiencing homelessness that began under President George W. Bush but which the Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t fully implement until 2013. Housing First seeks to serve people experiencing homelessness with dignity by providing interventions such as rapid re-housing and supportive housing without preconditions. Services are tailored to each person’s or family’s specific needs and circumstances; participants aren’t forced into services they don’t want or need. Despite how the USICH plan portrays it, Housing First is not housing only, nor is it a one-size-fits-all model.
Housing First’s efficacy is clear and long standing. It’s cost effective and, most importantly, it improves participants’ quality of life and functioning within the community, research of the past two decades shows. It’s particularly effective for people who have experienced homelessness for long periods and have disabilities.
And Housing First is about more than just data — it reflects the view that people experiencing homelessness deserve housing, are worthy of dignity, and can make decisions about their own lives. This USICH plan, however, indicates that this Administration disagrees.
Presents homelessness data inaccurately
The USICH plan correctly identifies a key challenge: homelessness is rising in alarming ways. The plan, however, falsely implies that the increase is caused by a single policy within the homelessness assistance system rather than by a complex set of factors that includes systemic racism, a lack of affordable housing, the gap between incomes and rents, and the flow of people into homelessness from the child welfare, legal, and other systems. Many youth and young adults experiencing homelessness were in foster care; formerly incarcerated people are nearly ten times likelier to experience homelessness than the general public; and almost half of adult heads of household in shelter programs live with a disability. In oversimplifying the causes of the current rise in homelessness, the USICH plan does not sufficiently acknowledge this variety of contributing factors.
Contradicts current Administration policies in confusing and harmful ways
Among the plan’s most concerning aspects is its lack of consistency, both within the document and with other Administration policies. These contradictions will, at best, cause confusion in the field. At worst, they indicate that the document is a public relations tool rather than a serious roadmap to help communities meet the challenges they face.
- While the document calls for “a renewed focus on racial disparities,” it doesn’t indicate how grantees, contractors, and government employees can meaningfully combat these disparities without training about their causes, which White House executive orders have banned.
- The plan includes strategies to “promote alternatives to criminalizing people experiencing homelessness.” But it repeatedly cites a September 2019 Council of Economic Advisers report that indicates that some communities’ policies have made sleeping in unsheltered locations too comfortable, and that more stringent police enforcement is needed to decrease “tolerability” for sleeping unsheltered.
- The plan highlights the significant progress to reduce homelessness among veterans, but it does not recognize that the successful approach to ending veterans’ homelessness is rooted in the same Housing First principles that the USICH report maligns.
Guidance for Communities
This plan falls woefully short of what communities and homelessness services providers need to reduce homelessness, especially as they face some of the toughest challenges since the Great Recession of about a decade ago.
People experiencing homelessness and those who serve them deserve better. Communities should continue to rely on practices and interventions that are rooted in evidence and informed by people with lived expertise, and that support the dignity of our neighbors experiencing homelessness and housing instability.