With elections nearly a month behind us, advocates are honing strategies to approach leaders and legislatures, new and old. With so much focus on federal budget and policy, it’s easy to overlook that all but half a dozen state legislatures will be in session by the time President Obama is inaugurated for a second term. At that time, state legislators will already be addressing budgetary issues and health care reform, two factors that will play huge roles in homelessness assistance next year.
A lot of the action on the issue of homelessness will be taking place in state capitals, and advocates can learn more about how to get involved on Tuesday, December 18, at 3 p.m. ET, when the Alliance hosts a live webinar, “Strategies to End Chronic Homelessness: Pursuing Innovative Policies at the State Level.” Field experts will show you and your community partners how to can make the most of new opportunities in your state. You can register for the webinar here.
The political landscape in the states has shifted a bit since the 2012 elections. So advocates in these 50 separate arenas must tailor their approaches in light of the election results in their states. Five new governors will assume office in 2013, but only in North Carolina did the gubernatorial seat change party hands. Party control shifted in just four states (Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire), and a handful of state legislatures are nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
Homelessness advocates are going to have to involve themselves in what’s happening in their state legislatures, and that means keeping track of the activities of leaders, lobbyists and grassroots organizations, and answering questions like, “Is the issue of homelessness on the state agenda? Are the leaders even interested in addressing homelessness? Do we as state advocates have the kind of access to leaders and influence that we need to affect state policies?
Every state is different, but here are a few points worth noting, from a national vantage. First the bad news:
- As in the federal arena, programs require funding, so a lot of the big state policy decisions will be made during the budget debate. Unlike the federal government, however, many states are required by their constitutions to balance their annual budgets, which means more pressure to get the bottom line right year to year. Legislators may be tempted to skimp on state funding for housing and assistance in the expectation that federal programs and local coffers will make up the difference.
- Though the economy is improving, states continue to feel the effects of the recession. Many states last year had to contend with shortfalls in state revenues, and they made up for the shortfalls with spending cuts. Again, the openings for advocates to propose and enact new policies – even cost-effective ones – are few and far between.
Now, the good news:
- For people working to end chronic homelessness, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will present real opportunities as it moves to the states. In the next two years, a number of states (hard to know how many) will expand their Medicaid programs to cover many homeless adults who have gone without health insurance, for years or perhaps their entire lives.
- A number of states will choose still other options under the ACA – such as Medicaid health homes – that will add capacity to the systems of care for chronically homeless people.
The Alliance’s policy team has been thinking about new ways to help our advocates affect state policymaking, particularly with regard to identifying and making the most of ACA opportunities. This fall, we reached out with an online survey to learn what issues are most pressing in the coming year when combatting chronic homelessness. Respondents from 32 states answered the call, and identified four relevant policy topics:
- Funding for state mental health programs that offer supportive housing;
- Expansion of Medicaid to cover all adults up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level;
- Policy decisions to increase Medicaid coverage for behavioral health care; and
- Funding for state programs to help people exiting jails and prisons.
We also learned that there is a nearly unanimous need for state-level strategies and tactics for addressing these challenges, with state advocates citing “data” as the primary tool that they lack
The Alliance has already begun to respond to these needs, with Alliance tools and materials and by connecting people with outside experts and resources. Now is the time for homeless advocates and their partners to define their role for 2013 in their states.
Here are some basic steps to get started:
- Know your key statewide coalitions and make sure they know you.
- Stay current on state legislative affairs – through your state representatives, local news sources and opinion-leaders, and state think tanks. Understand the big picture.
- Prep your champions and spokespersons– are their messages up-to-date and relevant?
- Have an “ask” for your state legislators that will engage them in your most important issues – whether it’s funding for behavioral health, public investment in supportive housing, or reporting of data needed to advance state solutions.
- Build relationships for the long-term. Keep up with your contacts working in state policy settings, and inform them about your issues and your goals
The Alliance’s Economic Development Policy Fellow, Edward J. SanFilippo, contributed to this blog post.
Two weeks or so out from the excitement of the election, it may seem that not much has changed in the grand scheme of things. Not so! Due to redistricting, retirement, resignation, and competitive races, there will be many new faces around Capitol Hill this January. Already last Tuesday, eighty or so members of the freshman class of the 113th Congress arrived on Capitol Hill for their New Member Orientation. With all those new Members and with committee selections to be finalized around February, we can expect a lot of new people will be occupying significant decision-making positions.
New Members will likely begin considering a wide array of issues and forming relationships with advocates early on. So, for advocates who want to help Members-elect better understand the issue of homelessness in their districts, the next few months will be a crucial time to pick up or begin the conversation around homelessness. With federal budget issues looming large and the new Congress set to take up federal spending issues soon after their swearing-in, we need to engage and educate these new Members on solutions to homelessness and the importance of making ending homelessness a federal priority.
Here are some effective approaches for educating or connecting with your new Member before they arrive in DC in January for their swearing in:
- Request a meeting with the Member before they begin their term. Often, you can find contact information for your new Member on their campaign’s website. Contacting a member of campaign staff through a general campaign email address or campaign phone number could be a simple but effective way of reaching your new Member.
- Write an Op-Ed in your local paper directed at your new Member. Call on the new Member to make ending homelessness a federal priority and a focus of their work in Congress. Explain what homelessness looks like in your community and what the Member-elect should do to support your programs and efforts. An Op-Ed will have the added benefit of reaching a wider audience and educating others in your community about homelessness locally.
- Send your new Member information about homelessness in your district. Sending a letter is an equally great way of opening the lines of communication and creating a dialogue around homelessness. Members will have a lot on their plates as soon as they arrive on the Hill, so make sure your letter is concise and offers data and a clear ask of your Member to focus on the issue of homelessness. Follow up on your letter when the Member has an established office in January.
- Reach out to your Member in early January. If you are unable to reach your Member-elect while they are still at home, consider reaching out to them in January. If the member hasn’t established a full staff yet, work with the member’s Chief of Staff to pass your message along on making ending homelessness a federal priority.
If you have any questions about these advocacy actions, just let us know and we’ll be happy to help you strategize and reach out! Finally, if you have a reason to believe that your newly-elected Member of Congress might be supportive of efforts to prevent and end homelessness, or if you have a connection to a new member or their campaign, please share the name of that member with us!
Elections always provide opportunities for change. The impact the results of this election will have on the issue of homelessness will depend on how successful those of us who care deeply about this issue are in educating our representatives and ensuring that they make ending it a priority. With change in the air and tough budgetary decisions ahead, there is truly no time like the present to advocate on the behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Today’s federal post-election update was written by Kate Seif, the Alliance’s Policy Outreach Coordinator. The state post-election update was written by Lisa Stand, Senior Policy Analyst with the Alliance.
Eye on the Federal
President Obama won the election; the Republican Party maintained its majority in the House of Representatives; and the Democrats kept their majority in the Senate. It may look as though little has changed, but looks can be deceiving. Elections always mean change.
In Congress, both the House and Senate have a host of new members, while some long-term incumbents (and some new ones) have retired, resigned, or otherwise moved positions, paving the way for congressional committee reassignments and possible leadership changes. Many districts have been redrawn thanks to the decennial redistricting resulting from the Census, and that has left many constituents with new Representatives.
While the resident of the White House isn’t going anywhere, the 15 Executive Cabinet Members can (and often do) go elsewhere between terms. The same is true for a host of lower-level positions. No announcements on that front, so far, though.
The question we in the Alliance are asking is how will these changes impact homelessness? The short answer is that right now, just days after the election, we don’t know. During the run-up to the election there was a lot of talk about the need for bipartisanship, and about crossing the aisle and working together. If that kind of talk translates into action, we could see progress.
Federal movement around preventing and ending homelessness has a long history of bipartisan support, with members of both parties working together to make an impact. We hope to see more of that in the weeks and months to come.
Post-election, there is a lot more certainty about the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – and some clear direction for people working to end chronic homelessness in their communities. The health care reform law passed narrowly in 2010, with key provisions not intended to take effect in 2014. The lengthy lead time gave ACA opponents – among them candidate Mitt Romney – the opportunity to campaign to repeal it. With the ACA’s chief proponent Barack Obama now re-elected to a second term, the American public can expect the federal government to carry on with implementation.
Eye on the States
However, because of a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, debates about health care reform will continue in many states, and pick up pace as the 2014 implementation approaches. That is because the Supreme Court said that the decision to expand Medicaid as the ACA envisions is a state decision, not a matter of federal mandate. Though a number of states have fully embraced the ACA, not every state will immediately opt to expand its Medicaid program, even though the ACA offers generous subsidies to states to do so.
As homeless advocates well understand, the ACA on paper could extend Medicaid to virtually all chronically homeless people who do not already qualify for Medicaid disability. In fact, many people who are chronically homeless lack any health care coverage or a regular source of care for serious physical and behavioral health conditions. Local safety net programs are often burdened as a result – in the health care system as well as homeless assistance system. Clearly, by embracing the ACA and expanding Medicaid, states can boost the overall funding for those health care services in permanent supportive housing – the best approach to ending chronic homelessness.
At the same time that states consider their options for 2014, other ACA provisions are taking effect, as the law intended. One example is creation of person-centered health homes, which are already being implemented in some states. The health home benefit is a possible funding source for care coordination activities that help people stabilize in supportive housing. The Alliance recently published a policy brief about health homes, explaining how individual state decisions on this provision can best help drive solutions to chronic homelessness.
People working to end homelessness in their communities understand the importance of these and other relevant ACA provisions that fund services for vulnerable people and help safety net systems function more effectively. Now that so much of the ACA conversation is moving to states, it is critical, from a homeless services perspective, to engage and inform mainstream efforts to change Medicaid in states.
With state elected leadership now settled, policymakers are looking at 2013 state budget strategies, as well as actions needed to take advantage of health care reform. As states respond to ACA opportunities, community-based strategies to address chronic homelessness should be highlighted. Messages should convey the opportunities for supportive housing to help stretch the public dollars spent on vulnerable populations.
One first step is to educate new leaders and remind incumbents about the connections between homelessness and the high costs of providing health care to vulnerable people, and to suggest specifically what communities need from innovation in Medicaid and other state health care programs.
As Congress reconvenes to deal with the Fiscal Cliff and Washington gets back to work, the changes and issues that lie ahead will further emerge. The Alliance will, of course, continue to keep our readers posted on these issues and how they might impact the great work and progress being made on the ground.
Today’s guest blog post was contributed by Hannah Gisness, a student at George Washington University, and Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.
October is here with elections just around the corner! Last week I had the opportunity to participate in National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration Week. I worked alongside students from The George Washington University and advocates for The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). We successfully registered 137 individuals to vote.
For three days, we manned a table at the Martin Luther King Library in D.C and visited local parks to encourage and assist people in the voting and registration process. We were equipped with NCH’s 2012 Voting Manual, paper applications, pens, stickers, pamphlets from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, and registration and voting materials.
Each year in the United States, millions of people experience or are at risk of experiencing homelessness. According to the Census Bureau, of the 15,784,000 individuals from families making less than $20,000 per year, 63.7 percent were registered to vote and 51.9 percent voted in the 2008 presidential election. This year’s election will help determine many health care and housing rights important for low-income individuals and individuals experiencing homelessness. So it is imperative that this population be aware of their voting rights.
One of the biggest misconceptions about voting is that you need a home in order to vote. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics’ voter registration application does require two addresses – a residential address, and a mailing address to which the confirmation will be sent. But an individual who is experiencing homelessness can use the address of a shelter, a friend’s house, or the street address where they sleep for the residential address, and many shelters in D.C. allow their guests to use their addresses for the mailing address. St. Steven’s Church in Colombia Heights has also volunteered the use of their address.
At the library, we asked each person walking by if they would like to register to vote. We were pleasantly surprised when we found that many of the people who approached our table were already registered. For those people, we made sure they were aware of D.C.’s early voting dates. The 2012 election will be held on Tuesday, November 6. The ballot times are not always convenient for many people, but D.C. offers two weeks of early voting leading up to the election. Many people we talked to were unaware of this option, and we were able to provide dates and polling locations to about 150 additional people.
As we asked library guests and park inhabitants if they would like to register to vote, some passed us by, saying that they were ineligible, but a few of these individuals who thought they were ineligible did stop and talk with us. One woman whispered to me she had committed a felony. Fortunately, D.C.’s disenfranchisement restrictions are limited to those in prisons. The woman was so excited she could register to vote, she later returned with a friend who faced a similar situation. Another man we registered remarked that this would be the first election he would vote in since President Clinton was elected in 1992.
Many people were unsure if they were registered or if their registration was up to date. Conveniently, at the library we had access to computers, so people could electronically access their application in the Board of Elections and Ethics database and check their status and change information if they needed to.
The D.C. Board of Elections also provided us with hundreds of paper applications and information packets people could take home. Since we were using the D.C. Board of Elections application, we could not register residents of Maryland or Virginia. We were, however, able talk to them about their voting eligibility and explain where they could check out their states’ requirements.
Local shelters and advocacy groups in Atlanta, Denver, Cleveland, New York City and many other cities across the country also mounted voter registration efforts for National Homeless & Low-Income Voter Registration Week. In D.C. So Others Might Eat (SOME), which already registered 165 people earlier this year, registered another 105 voters.
In order for the registration efforts to be effective, we must continue encouraging individuals to vote and register at their polling places if they have not done so already. Volunteers and organizations can provide transportation – school buses, church shuttles, and taxis – to polling locations or plan walks to the polls. Shelter staff can set up mock voting booths for individuals to practice voting, and encourage well known community members to assist at the polls.
For individuals without a supportive network encouraging them to get involved in the voting process, or individuals who are unaware of their voting rights, the process could be much more difficult. This upcoming election is a crucial one for low-income individuals and individuals experiencing homelessness.
I am proud that our efforts have made it possible for 137 to participate in the electoral process this November.
“You don’t need a home to vote, ” as the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) reminds us on the cover of its 2012 Voting Rights Manual. The NCH and its national partners are wrapping up National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration Week, which runs from September 30 to October 6. Voter registration deadlines for the upcoming November elections in the majority of states are fast approaching, but registration will be open in more than a dozen states for at least another week. You can find out the registration deadline in your state from the NCH manual, or look for this information on the website of your state elections office. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has a list of state links for state-specific information and registration tools.
The NCH manual offers general tips about registering homeless voters. If there is still time to help homeless citizens register in your state, here are some key points you should keep in mind:
- Homelessness is not, in any state, a sufficient condition for denying a person the right to register to vote.
- Community agencies and homeless advocates can help by making registration materials available to clients and other visitors.
- Registration materials should be kept separate from other materials and must not feature or accompany messages that favor one party or one candidate over another. A best practice is to avoid naming any candidates or identifiable campaign themes. Keep messages non-partisan – aimed at voting and civic engagement, without regard to party or candidate.’
- Be aware of the types of the addresses that your state accepts when registering homeless people, as well as any requirements to report about duration of residency.
- Know how to document and report any apparently unlawful or unusual restrictions on voting registration.
If the registration deadline in your state has passed, you still have time to plan ways to help people experiencing homelessness participate if they are already registered.
- Service agencies and community organizations can help citizens with transportation to polling sites. Contact your state or local elections office for up-to-date information about polling sites near shelters or major service agencies and other key sites. Again, it is important to remain non-partisan when helping in this way.
- Be familiar with and be able to explain procedures for casting a provisional ballot, just in case there is a problem at the point of voting.
- Know how to document and report apparently unlawful or unusual restrictions on the exercise of voting rights.
- Visit NCH’s website at nationalhomeless.org for more resources and connections to help homeless and low-income citizens exercise their voting rights. And look for a guest blog post from an NCH advocate on the Alliance website later this month.
U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a website of the federal government
This Is My Vote, a project of the NAACP
Ex-Felons and Voting Rights, a map of state policies from the American Civil Liberties Union