Monday, August 13, 2007

Twenty Years of McKinney

Twenty Years of McKinney

Last month marked 20 years since the 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Act, the federal government’s first and still most dominant program to alleviate homelessness for poor people in America. Why then do we still see so many homeless people on our streets? Or know about the “invisible homeless,” the individuals and families who have lost their homes and had to move in with others, sleep in cars or bounce from motel to shelter to hotel.

The short answer is because there is not enough housing. Since 1979, the federal government has reduced subsidized affordable housing by $52 billion. Between 1996 and 2005, 100,000 public housing units have been lost and there has been zero funding for new public housing since 1996. When people can no longer afford the cost of housing, they must live without housing, they become “the homeless.”

But there is a longer answer. The Stewart McKinney act had its hands tied from the very beginning. It was never given the power to stem the growing tide of poor people newly created by cutbacks in federal agencies responsible for addressing poverty.

Here is how it worked. The last 20 years have seen massive cutbacks in the rolls for Social Security Insurance, widespread job losses through the North American Free Trade Agreement, a stagnant minimum wage still below poverty level, and other cuts to poverty programs. As financial support disappeared for more and more people, poverty spread, and at the same time HUD’s affordable housing programs were decimated. The McKinney legislation was never designed to deal with these underlying causes of homelessness. Or put another way, it was never designed to overcome these barriers to ending homelessness.

When McKinney was signed into law in 1987, emerging homelessness was just beginning to be recognized as a national issue. Local communities had already established emergency shelters and services, and many had set up task forces or councils to coordinate services and write plans.

It was in this environment that the McKinney Act was born. It first focused on the immediate emergency needs of homeless people in local communities – beds, blankets, and band aids. It did not regulate how long people had to be homeless to qualify. It did not require communities to discriminate between families and individuals. It did not pretend to be a housing program.

Over the years, however, and given the mushrooming numbers of poor people, McKinney applications have forced a variety of homeless sub-populations to compete for woefully inadequate funds. For example, now HUD’s system for scoring community’s applications for McKinney funds are weighted in favor of housing “chronically homeless” individuals versus homeless families with children. In fact, HUD scores a community’s plan to create and success in creating permanent housing beds for people who are chronically homeless, but does not even require communities to include in its applications its strategies for creating permanent housing units for families with children and individuals who are not chronically homeless. Communities which are new to the McKinney funding world received no funding this year in part because they prioritized assisting families with children.

It has become a zero-sum game, with children, families, and single individuals competing against each other. As housing and services are made more available to one group, resources are drained from others. It is a classic example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It shifts homelessness but has no chance whatsoever of ending it, and it puts cruel burdens on local communities.

July will mark 20 years since passage of the McKinney Act. It has done some good for some people. But has it has not significantly reduced homelessness across the country. How could it? A $1.4 billion a year homelessness budget cannot compensate for a $52 billion a year reduction in affordable housing.

Its original name, the “Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act,” makes clear that it was never intended to be a comprehensive solution for homeless people. HUD has that responsibility, but cuts to HUD’s budget for affordable low-income housing have been relentless. Tinkering with McKinney to determine who wins and who loses accomplishes nothing toward ending homelessness. Nor, for that matter, will punitive new laws against panhandling or sleeping in public, or poverty courts that serve only to remove the more visible homeless people from public view.

Urgent relief is needed. What’s to be done? As a private citizen, what can you do?

1. You can insist that any candidate seeking your support explain how he or she would return McKinney to its “urgent relief” function for all homeless people, as originally intended.

2. You can insist that any candidate seeking your support explain how he or she would ensure that the federal departments of HUD, Health, Education, and Labor will revitalize programs that once served poor people. We need to get this country back to the days before so many people needed “urgent relief.”

3. You can write, e-mail, or call both your favored candidate and the Democratic National Committee and demand that a comprehensive plan to end mass homelessness in America be a mason plank in the Democratic Party Platform for 2008.

We need a true comprehensive federal government plan to take effect immediately. Think New Deal.

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