By Gregory Heller
The Biden-Harris administration continued to show a strong focus on housing and human services issues with its new plan, “ALL IN: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” issued by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) on December 19, 2022. The plan asserts a goal “to reduce homelessness by 25 percent by January 2025.” It was the result of an inclusive process of more than 80 listening sessions and 1,500 public comments, including more than 500 from people who have experienced homelessness. It is a human-centric and solutions-oriented approach. Jeff Olivet, the USICH executive director, wrote, “The United States of America can end homelessness by fixing public services and systems—not by blaming the individuals and families who have been left behind by failed policies and economic exclusion.”
The document lays out the need for critical action: “According to [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)], on any given night, more than half a million people sleep in shelters and unsheltered places not meant for human habitation, such as cars and encampments.” At some point in 2020, 1.25 million people experienced homelessness, and during the 2019-2020 school year, 1.28 million students experienced homelessness. Nearly a million households are evicted each year and 37.5% of those end up living on the streets. According to research cited in the report, “[I]n no state can a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent.”
The plan stresses that these trends have worsened in recent years, citing rising housing costs that outpace wage growth across the country. Prior to the pandemic, there was a shortage of 7 million affordable and available homes for low-income renters. And climate change has exacerbated this housing instability, according to the report’s research: “[M]ore Americans are being displaced from their homes and people experiencing unsheltered homelessness face even greater risk to their health and safety as a result of climate-related crises like wildfires, floods, and hurricanes.”
Throughout the plan there is a clear and central focus on equity, racial justice, and the unequal impact of homelessness on certain groups, such as “veterans, low-income workers, people of color, LGBTQI+ Americans, people with disabilities, older adults, and people with arrest or conviction records.” While only 12.4% of the US population is non-Hispanic Black, that demographic makes up 37.4% of the nation’s homeless population. The report discusses the connection between homelessness and health, and the theme of housing as a “social determinant of health.” The impact of this inequality is stark: “People who experience homelessness die nearly 30 years earlier than the average American.”
A key point emphasized throughout the document is that homelessness is not an isolated issue, rather one that is inseparably tied to others, and that requires cross-agency collaboration. It is also an issue that cannot be solved at the federal level alone. President Biden wrote in his cover letter, “We need partners at the state and local levels, in the private sector, and from philanthropies to all play a part in meeting this goal.” In another section, the report said, “Ending homelessness requires an all-hands-on-deck response grounded in authentic collaboration.”
The report also continually stresses the fact that the Biden-Harris administration has been making “ending homelessness a top priority,” citing dozens of pieces of legislation, executive orders, and other programs that touch the issue across federal departments (e.g., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Treasury, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Departments of Health and Human Services, and HUD). Foremost of these is the American Rescue Plan Act, with its $350 billion of flexible State and Local Fiscal Relief Funds (SLFRF), that the White House encouraged jurisdictions to use for housing in the White House’s Housing Supply Action Plan, issued in October. In 2021, HUD and USICH launched House America: An All-Hands-on-Deck Effort to Address the Nation’s Homelessness Crisis.
The report explains, “While there have been many structural drivers, the evidence shows that homelessness is largely the result of failed policies.” These policies are across multiple areas, including education, physical and mental health, and investment in affordable housing. At the same time, it cites the fact that housing prices have been rising, while wages have failed to keep pace. It argues that America has “an inadequate safety net that fails to keep individuals and families from falling through the cracks when they fall on hard times.” The report discusses the criminalization of homelessness and “out of sight, out of mind” policies by local communities that make it difficult for people experiencing homelessness to live outdoors, while providing inadequate housing and shelter solutions.
After laying out a stark set of challenges, the report then pivots to opportunities, such as the “Unprecedented investment of new funding” available to state and local governments through federal legislation like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). It also mentions President Biden’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2023, which includes proposed housing investments like increased funding for vouchers and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. It highlights other potential opportunities developed during the pandemic, such as the increase in hotels and motels converted to homeless housing, new delivery systems across the nation for emergency rental assistance, the use of direct-cash programs to aid households, and the use of eviction moratoriums to prevent homelessness. The report also talks about the renewed awareness of racial equity as an opportunity to focus on efforts that reverse historic inequities in social policies that have directly or indirectly resulted in increased housing instability and homelessness.
The bulk of the report focuses on solutions that align to six key pillars: Lead with equity; Use data and evidence to make decisions; Collaborate at all levels; Scale housing and supports that meet demand; Improve effectiveness of homeless response systems; Prevent homelessness. Under each pillar are a series of strategies with bullet-point initiatives.
Lead with Equity
This pillar stresses the need to “[i]dentify expected equity outcomes with qualitative and quantitative measures.” It focuses on including people with lived experience in decision-making. There is a significant discussion around strategies for increasing access to federal funding for American Indian and Alaska Native communities, citing “federal disinvestment in basic infrastructure, severe housing shortages that lead to dangerous overcrowding, and complex legal constraints related to land ownership.” A primary solution is to expand Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 programs to increase housing development on tribal lands. Finally, there is a strategy around examining “policies and practices that may have created and perpetuated racial and other disparities among people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.”
Use Data and Evidence to Make Decisions
The lead strategy focuses on how the federal government can better use data to inform federal policy and funding, including a suggestion to “create a federal dashboard to track and report relevant data.” It also focuses on approaches for increasing capacity of state and local governments to collect and report data. There is emphasis on increasing the use of Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS), and the ability to integrate HMIS data with other federal sources. The final strategy talks about how to use evidence to promote what works, including public-private partnerships to fund research. One point recommended, “Review all COVID-19 flexibilities’ effectiveness—including the extent to which they increased equity—and determine the feasibility of extending or making them permanent based on input from recipients of federal funding.”
Collaborate at All Levels
This pillar includes solutions that emphasize the core point around “collaborative leadership at all levels of government and across all sectors.” It also discusses ways to enhance information-sharing across public and private-sector organizations.
Scale Housing and Supports That Meet Demand
The most extensive pillar, this section focuses on the point that, “The fundamental solution to homelessness is housing.” Strategies include expanding federal assistance, citing the fact that “[t]he number of people eligible for federal housing assistance far exceeds the availability of it, and many people in need of such assistance wait years, often falling into or struggling to get out of homelessness in the meantime.”
The next set of points focuses on producing new affordable housing, including maximizing the impact of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), using SLFRF funds for housing construction and preservation, encouraging states to have a preference in their LIHTC Qualified Allocation Plans for people experiencing homelessness, and encouraging state and local officials to update zoning laws and policies. It also included a recommendation to build cross-sector collaboration with the private sector, health systems, philanthropic, and faith-based groups around providing land and resources for housing.
This section focuses on the Housing First approach, an evidence-based model where “housing is offered without preconditions and with a broad array of voluntary, trauma-informed wraparound services.” This approach should include a gap analysis that focuses on racial equity, and include approaches that focus on rapid rehousing for specific populations, including unaccompanied, pregnant, and parenting youth and adults. The section includes a strategy around supporting enforcement of fair housing laws and combating housing discrimination, including source of income discrimination.
One set of recommendations related to the nexus of health and housing, citing the significantly higher occurrence of numerous health-related issues in people experiencing homelessness, including HIV, and chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, lung disease, and heart conditions. One strategy was to “[i]ntegrate treatment for mental health conditions and/or substance use disorders into primary healthcare settings and other non-traditional settings that lower barriers to services.”
A final section focuses on access to services. Strategies include ways to help households build wealth and increase savings in order to prevent the negative impacts of the “benefits cliff,” where public benefits cease when a household makes more than the qualifying income level. It also suggested using approaches like categorical eligibility to reduce barriers to program access. There was also a strategy to “[e]ncourage states to consider Medicaid-financed service approaches and models.”
Improve Effectiveness of Homeless Response Systems
This section focuses on the need to target intervention and outreach, citing the fact that “more than half of the unsheltered population lives in the nation’s 50 largest cities.” Strategies include removing barriers to access, streamlining eligibility (including approaches like categorical eligibility that reduce the need for administrative paperwork), increasing availability of emergency shelter, building a stronger relationship between Continuums of Care and other public health and emergency management agencies—especially in the wake of natural disasters. Likewise at the federal level it recommends greater collaboration between HUD, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security. Another strategy discusses the use of “housing problem-solving” approaches in law enforcement, early childhood settings, employment training centers, and hospitals, in order to aid in diversion and rapid exit from homelessness.
The final pillar discusses approaches to prevent households from experiencing homelessness in the first place, including access to employment, education, resources, and opportunities. It also focuses on populations most at risk of homelessness and specific strategies for addressing the need of those populations: individuals and families exiting from institutional systems, such as corrections or foster care; older adults and people with disabilities (including those with mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders); veterans and service members transitioning to civilian life; American Indians and Alaska Natives; and survivors of human trafficking, sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence.
The ALL IN plan continues to reinforce the Biden-Harris administration’s strong focus on housing and homelessness. The plan covers a wide range of issues and strategies, but it maintains a thread emphasizing issues around equity, and evidence-based and data-informed approaches. The plan continually mentions the availability of significant federal funds that can be used for housing, which are at the discretion of state and local governments. It also clearly emphasizes the fact that effective solutions will require partnerships—between levels of government, between agencies, and between sectors. It remains to be seen whether the plan catalyzes this partnership to address the urgency of the issues at hand.
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