The Feds Are Blocking Local Solutions to Homelessness

The Feds Are Blocking Local Solutions to Homelessness

Homelessness has become a major social issue across the country. With homeless rates rising, cities, churches, and community groups are struggling to engage the problem effectively. Residents are desperate for governments to do something — anything — to help.

Because homelessness impacts local communities, it is described as a local issue. While that’s true, in a sense, most cities, counties, and states are handcuffed. Local entities aren’t free to pursue local solutions. Federal funding restrictions and policy preferences dictate how homelessness is addressed, who is considered homeless, and what can be done to help people who experience homelessness. With few dedicated homelessness resources, cities and counties are often severely constrained and pressured to follow the federal government’s lead.  

By contrast, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has significant resources and a $2.5 billion budget for homeless assistance grants. In addition, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, an independent federal agency, receives $3 million to coordinate services to individuals experiencing homelessness through other federal agencies such as the Veterans Administration, Health, and Human Services, among others. Given these resources, the federal government could make a positive difference. 

Yet, when the federal government gets it wrong, it gets it really wrong. Federal dominance in homelessness significantly can prevent a local community’s ability to address local challenges and concerns. Current HUD policy calls for homeless assistance grants to be considered and proposed through regional collaboratives called continuums of care. The continuums are funded by HUD to implement federal policy at the local level. While they appear to represent local decision-making, they are, in fact, top down, not bottom up. When local approaches differ from HUD’s priorities, the continuums can decrease funding for community-based solutions and deny program support, even if these local approaches serve real needs and produce results.

For example, HUD’s eligibility definition dictates who is eligible for homeless assistance at the local level. The definition is biased against families, children, and youth by way of the vulnerability indexes that HUD requires. Communities can’t serve the homeless populations they identify as most in need of help, nor can they approach homelessness the way they want. They must do it HUD’s way. 

HUD also limits the kind of housing local problem-solvers can support. For many communities, transitional housing serves a vital need by providing vital services and time-limited housing for homeless people. Many transitional housing programs focus on comprehensive services for individuals and families experiencing homelessness to address the root causes of their homelessness, not just housing. But HUD is systematically defunding transitional housing in favor of housing that requires nothing of the people who are placed in it. Communities that object to this “housing only” approach are bullied into submission with the threat of defunding, even though they provide effective alternative approaches — including education, employment, and substance abuse treatment.

As the federal government’s top-down, bureaucratic approach fails, cities and neighborhoods suffer. Angry citizens speak out in city council meetings; neighbors band together to protests top-down decision-making impacting where they live. But they are speaking to local representatives with precious little decision-making power when it comes to homelessness. 

As news article after news article decry the increase in homelessness, Congress has barely moved to consider this human tragedy only recently scheduling its first hearing on homelessness this congress. HUD maintains that all is good — its plan is working. But the human suffering involved in waiting until someone meets HUD’s eligibility requirements is not apparent to the elected representatives who can actually do something about it — members of Congress — as it is to those of us on the ground. Instead, those who would otherwise be best able to address the problem — local officials — bear the burden of failed federal plans and policies.

Serious reform is needed at the federal level to provide real help for communities. Instead of requiring submission to a one-size-fits-all top-down approach, Congress must give flexibility to those working at the ground level to engage in bottom up solutions that will reduce the level of homelessness. 

The Homeless Children and Youth Act (S 611/H.R. 1511) is a great start to providing communities flexibility in addressing homelessness. It would shift the balance of power away from the feds to local communities. Social entrepreneurs at the local level, who are in touch with unique local needs and have relationships with real people facing homelessness, tend to be far more nimble, compassionate, and effective than the feds. Congress needs to take up the Act so that it can begin to assert its responsibility to get out of the way, admit HUD’s failings, and help those who are far better equipped to make a difference.

Paul Webster is Director of Strategic Advancement at Solutions for Change.

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