This past Sunday, July 22, marked 25 years since President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, named after congressman from Connecticut who poured a lot of his time and energy into doing something about what was then the new problem of mass homelessness. The final vote in Congress was 65-8 in the Senate and 301-115 in the House. Years later the Act was renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, adding the name of Bruce Vento, a congressman from Minnesota whose commitment to the issue matched Representative McKinney’s.
Everyone involved in getting the act passed regarded it as a first step. The bill provided funding that allowed program operators to try out a variety of approaches to solving the problem. With these resources, for more than 10 years, program operators around the country worked to construct an impressive array of shelters, supportive services, and temporary and permanent housing.
Yet when a major federal research study in the late 1990s showed that the number of people experiencing homelessness had not gone down, few people were surprised. If anything, even more people were homeless at that time than in 1987, the year the act was signed into law.
The new resources and new programs had allowed advocates to improve the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness and serve communities where homelessness existed, but the problem of homelessness remained. So a movement to end homelessness began.
It started in the late 1990s and picked up steam in the early years of the new millennium: a data-driven approach that allowed people at the community level to see more clearly what was working and what was not. Homeless assistance practitioners employed annual counts and HMIS, and their emphasis was on getting people back into housing quicker and in greater numbers.
The results, particularly in the years leading up to the recession in 2008, were striking. And thanks to improved methods at the local level and HPRP funds from the federal government, the number of people in shelters and on the streets has continued to decline, even in the midst of widespread unemployment.
We’re living through period of great change in the U.S. On that point we all seem to agree. But we cannot agree on the form that change should take. We agree that people can and should work collectively to make our country better, but how? And what should the role of the federal government play? The continued presence of homelessness in our country calls to everyone for a response.
Can we agree on the answer?