Policy and Legislation

10th September
written by Kate Seif

Last month, nearly 1,500 people traveled from all over the country to Washington, D.C. for the Alliance’s National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Almost a quarter of those people participated in Capitol Hill Day, and visited their Members of Congress on Capitol Hill to update them on local progress in ending homelessness and to urge them to make ending homelessness a federal priority.

Based on our State Captains’ “report backs” from more than 289 meetings, we’ve compiled a 2012 Capitol Hill Day Report and Summary. The report highlights the major successes of this year’s Capitol Hill Day. For starters, more than 360 participants went on more than 289 meetings. Five states, including Arkansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Dakota, had a 100 percent participation rate, meaning that every person from the state who registered for our conference participated in Capitol Hill Day.

In the 289 congressional meetings, more than 75 of which involved a member of Congress (another record broken over last year), advocates made the case for the following Hill Day Policy Priorities:

  1. Provide $2.23 billion in FY 2013 for HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grants Program;
  2. Provide $127 million in FY 2013 for Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) Programs;
  3. Provide $1.35 billion for VA’s targeted homeless veteran programs, including $300 million for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program;
  4. Provide $100 million for SAMHSA Homeless Services Programs in FY 2013;
  5. Renew all existing Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers in FY 2013, and provide $75 million for about 10,000 new HUD – VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program vouchers; and
  6. Prevent further cuts in non-defense, discretionary spending for affordable housing and targeted homeless assistance programs.

It is worth noting that funding for the McKinney-Vento program was the subject of discussion in more than 233 meetings – that’s approximately 81 percent of all the meetings!

This year, the appropriations process has been on a “hurry up and wait” timeline. Both the House and Senate made great strides in producing and passing the fiscal year 2013 appropriations bills. But they stalled toward the end of June before the process was completed, promising to take the measures back up following the election. This put Capitol Hill Day in a slightly different context than previous years. There were no “Dear Colleague” congressional sign-on letters circulating in either the House or Senate, and unfortunately, Hill Day advocates had few concrete, immediate actions they could ask their Members to take.

Instead, advocates focused on inviting their Members on tours of local programs during the upcoming congressional recesses. In fact, they invited nearly 75 Members of Congress on a site visit – that’s more than twice as many invitations as were extended last year! This certainly helped lay the groundwork for the McKinney-Vento Site Visit Campaign, launched in early August, close on the heels of Capitol Hill Day.

As always, the best part of Capitol Hill Day is that the full impact of these 289 meetings could extend beyond the immediate successes outlined in this report. Capitol Hill Day participants realized valuable opportunities to create and strengthen relationships with members of Congress and their staff members. These bonds will prove to have an incalculable impact in the coming weeks, months, and years, particularly as Congress works to finalize the FY 2013 funding bills and tackles some of the bigger budget issues.

The success of this year’s Capitol Hill Day wouldn’t have been possible without people from around the country coming together. The effort of each person, and particularly the 73 volunteer State Captains, who spent countless hours organizing each state’s efforts, allowed this year’s Capitol Hill Day to be one of the most successful yet.

Thanks again to all our wonderful advocates and for yet another fantastic Capitol Hill Day!

4th September
written by naehblog

Today’s post was written by Edward J. SanFilippo, Economic Development Policy Fellow for the Alliance.

As we return to work after the Labor Day long weekend, we at the Alliance would like to recognize all those whose experience of homelessness is related to unemployment or underemployment. Labor Day is “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country,” according to the Department of Labor.

At the height of the economic crisis a number of years ago, we completed a short series of briefs called Economy Bytes, which explored various economic indicators and their relationship to homelessness: Doubled Up in the United States, Working Poor People in the United States, and Effect of State and Local Budget Cuts on Homelessness. Until now, we have been unable to explore these economic challenges in greater depth.

After spending the summer as the Alliance’s Youth Policy Fellow, I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to spend the upcoming semester in the new role of Economic Development Policy Fellow. In this new capacity, my primary emphasis will be on investigating employment initiatives for different sub-populations experiencing homelessness.

I’ll also be examining federal policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, exploring projects devoted to asset building and microenterprise, compiling a brief assessment of what other countries have done to address similar issues, and so forth.

This undertaking is long overdue, and we at the Alliance are excited to launch this new initiative. If your community or region has implemented innovative employment practices or economic policies for populations experiencing homelessness, we’d love to hear from you.

We’d like to wish you a belated Happy Labor Day!

23rd August
written by Lisa Stand

Photo by Justin CozartThe Alliance is proud to be a partner in From Housing to Recovery, a conference running from Sept. 19 through 21 in Tulsa, Okla.

In many ways, this three-day event exemplifies the kind of collaboration and focus we need if we are to address the problem of chronic homelessness and meet the goal of ending it by 2015, as set in the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

From Housing to Recovery, though initiated by private and non-profit champions in the Tulsa mental health community, is more than a local affair. It’s a national meeting as well, co-sponsored by Mental Health America. The event is about recovery, and it’s about housing, featuring policy, practice and partnership in equal measure. It’s about solutions that work for people and for communities.

Tulsa is an apt setting for a conference of this scope and vision. The 100,000 Homes campaign has recognized the city as a leader among communities making progress in ending chronic homelessness.

At the Alliance’s 2012 National Conference on Ending Homelessness, Greg Shinn from the Mental Health Association in Tulsa presented on the ingredients of Tulsa’s success in the workshop, Chronic Homelessness: Getting to Zero by 2015. According to Shinn, they include:

  • Community planning and housing investment
  • Integrated recovery for people experiencing mental health and housing crises
  • Housing First approaches with person-centered services and coordinated care
  • A focus on economic impact and sustainability
  • An  outcome-oriented, data-driven system redesign

The Alliance agrees with Tulsa that  communities dedicated to ending chronic homelessness need to incorporate these vital steps in their plans. We look forward to participating as a partner in the conference next month, and getting better acquainted with the great work going on in Tulsa. It’s not too late to join us!

Photo by Justin Cozart.

21st August
written by Sharon McDonald

In July, researchers contracted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development provided an update on a study that examines the comparative impact of various housing and service interventions on families experiencing homelessness. To date, more than 2,000 families in 12 communities have enrolled in the Family Options Study. While the current data available is limited to the baseline level, some findings do raise questions about how well we are using our homeless and mainstream resources to prevent and end homelessness.

Readers who are interested in listening to an audio recording of HUD’s July 19 presentation on this study can download Part 1 of the recording here, and Part 2 here.

Here’s a look at the study’s findings:

  • Resources for homelessness prevention: As in other studies, the data indicate that parents in homeless families are very young. Nearly 30 percent of the mothers are under the age of 25. They are also very poor, with an annual income averaging around $7,500. Significantly, more families are coming from doubled-up situations than are being evicted from housing they hold in their own name. This is useful information when it comes to assessing our use of homelessness prevention resources and the characteristics of the kinds of families most likely to fall into homelessness. It tells us that we should be targeting our resources at multi-generational and doubled-up families, families with very young parents, and families with minimal incomes.
  • Resources for vulnerable and low-income families: The findings also provide further evidence that the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program is underserving families: only 41 percent of the families reported receiving income from the TANF program. The data also show that a larger percentage, 27 percent, of parents enrolled in the program spent at least parts of their childhood and adolescence in foster care, though it remains unclear how many aged out of foster care and how many were reunified with their family. Though incomplete, this finding is important. If we are to improve the services that children and youth in foster care receive in their transition from the welfare system to their families of origin (or independent living) we must have a better understanding of this relationship between child welfare and subsequent homelessness.
  • Resources for homeless families: Perhaps one of the most surprising findings, and one that should give pause to all homeless service providers and system planners, concerns the use of transitional housing. Nearly 80 percent of the families the researchers referred to a project-based transitional housing were denied admittance to that program. Indeed, the eligibility criteria for many of these programs, which are supposed to offer service-rich interventions for homeless families, screen out all but a small segment of that population. Given the relative cost of transitional housing, this finding alone should generate some critical evaluation of how local communities are using scarce resources to assist at-risk and homeless families.
15th August
written by Kate Seif

This summer, we’ve heard a  lot about how there may not be enough funding in fiscal year (FY) 2013 to cover all Continuum of Care renewals within HUD’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants. With the release of the CoC interim rule (HEARTH Regs) and the prolonged August congressional recess and seeming quiet from Capitol Hill, it is easy to forget that this short-funding remains a very real possibility.

Fortunately, there’s still plenty we can do about it! The House’s proposed funding level for the McKinney program of $2.005 billion – aka the increase that isn’t really an increase – is not yet finalized. Anyone concerned about potential funding cuts to their CoC program should act now! Members of Congress are home in their states and districts until Monday, Sept. 10, so advocates and any concerned stakeholders have a perfect opportunity to show them the positive impact these programs are having in their districts!

Conduct a Site Visit!

The Congressional Management Foundation recently reported that Members of Congress rate site visits (tours of or visits to local, federally-funded programs) as one of the most valuable ways to collect constituent views and information. Take this opportunity to join the McKinney Site Visit Campaign and invite your Member of Congress to tour your McKinney-funded program!

To help you plan and execute your visit, we’ve created a website where you can find sample materials and a recording of a webinar held on Thursday, August 2, which included funding updates on the McKinney program and tips and tricks for a successful site visit. Our site visit toolkit includes a checklist to give you an idea of what you might need when planning your visit. In addition, the Alliance is here to help! Just email me with any questions or other requests!

Get on the Map!

To show that this is really a national effort, we have created a map that includes markers on the communities planning or conducting a site visit. A few site visits have already been scheduled! If you’d like to conduct a site visit and get on the map, let me know! If your community or organization is already planning on conducting a visit, but it’s not included on the map, let me know and I’d be more than happy to include it!

We need to make sure that as many Members of Congress understand the great work these programs are doing in preventing and ending homelessness in our community. The best way to do that, and make your case for increased funding for these programs, is to SHOW them!

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13th August
written by naehblog

It has been almost a month now since the Alliance’s National Conference on Ending Homelessness, and we have been doing our best to make sure that you have access to as much of our conference materials as possible. All the workshop materials that presenters provided to us have been placed on our website here, where they are available for download. We will continue to update the page as we receive materials.

Finally, we have already received numerous requests for the keynote remarks that our CEO and President Nan Roman delivered at the conference, so we thank you for your patience. We have finally published them on our website, and we are including them in this blog post below.





President and CEO

July 16 2012

Good afternoon and welcome to the 2012 National Alliance on Ending Homelessness. I want to extend our most heartfelt and deep thanks to all of you for being here today. We have over 1400 people in attendance – a record! Most of you are here because you have a burning desire to learn from your colleagues what you can do to improve your own approaches to ending homelessness. You want to know about the most effective practices and the most promising innovations that will work for you. Many of you have traveled far and put a lot of resources into making it here to D.C. for our conference, and we want you to know how deeply we appreciate that. I promise you that the Alliance staff has put tremendous effort into making sure that you have plenty of content here to chew on.

My job today is to tell you what we at the Alliance see as the current lay of the land: where we stand, what has worked, what has not, and what the future holds. I think we are at a pivotal moment on the issue, because things are very difficult now.

It seems that 2008 and 2009 should have been the most difficult years with respect to homelessness, with the huge spikes in unemployment, plummeting family incomes, a massive number of foreclosures, and painful cuts in state and local budgets. Many nonprofits lost big chunks of their budgets, and many households found themselves either on the brink of, or falling into, homelessness. These were, indeed, bad years, but we had some things going for us. We had the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP), and housing costs were going down. And when you have less to work with, you are spurred to innovate, to work harder, to try new things. It may have been a frightening time, but the sense of urgency it inspired was a shot of adrenaline that pushed us forward.

I fear that today is, in some ways, a more dangerous time. We may have arrived at a new status quo. I fear that the sense of urgency has diminished, and that the mood of the nation has taken an alarming turn. Politics have become ugly. Bipartisanship, once seen as something to be aspired to, is now reviled as an indication that one or the other side must have “given in.” Our sense of mutual responsibility is diminishing, perhaps because people are increasingly fearful about their own financial security. Rather than compassion towards people who live in poverty, there is animosity or contempt. There is little acknowledgement that our futures are bound together.

And we still have high unemployment, foreclosures, falling incomes, and budget cuts, although this time those cuts are threatened from the federal government as state and local budgets start to level out. Housing costs are going up, and we are losing HPRP, a program that has done so much to address the problem of homelessness and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

These are alarming developments, but we are not powerless to affect them. If we believe that a defining value of our nation is the conviction that the most vulnerable people among us should be supported and treated with compassion, we must stand up and say that. If we believe that our nation, which remains the richest nation in the world in spite of its current economic woes, has the capacity to provide children, veterans, people with mental illness – indeed, anyone in need – with food, clothing and a place to call home, we must stand up and say that.

And of course, now is the perfect time. We are in an election cycle. Whatever political party you belong to, now is the time for you to make yourself heard. Now is the time to make sure that people who share your convictions do the same. You are the ones who care the most about poor people and solving their problems. If you do not speak up about it, who will? So make sure to vote; make sure you participate; and, most importantly, make sure that everyone you work with, especially consumers, is registered to vote and participate.

If you want to know how to do that, we have a workshop here that can show you. The Alliance for Justice and the National Coalition for the Homeless both have tables outside where you can get information. Everyone should be registered to vote, and should vote. Your participation will make a difference.

Lately there has been a great deal of discussion in homelessness assistance field about new strategies and how we can do things smarter. That’s a discussion we need to have, because the reality is that we are likely going to learn how to do more with less. Already 40 percent of people who are homeless are unsheltered, according to the most recent HUD Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, and the Alliance expects the number of people experiencing homelessness to rise. We issued a report late last year estimating that, based on increases in deep poverty, homelessness might be expected to increase a minimum of 5 percent over the next few years. Because of the fiscal perfect storm that threatens 2013 – the end of the Bush-era tax cuts, the sequestration of federal spending, and the approach of the debt ceiling – we may have fewer federal resources to draw upon in the future.

So the key thing to keep in mind here is that, if we want to keep families and children and youth and vulnerable people off the streets, we are going to have to be smart about it. If we can do something that is equally effective and costs less, we need to do that. And that means change.

Our experience with HPRP has taught us that rapid re-housing linked with services works better and is more cost-effective than interventions like transitional housing. Don’t expect, however, to get more money for rapid re-housing. Instead, we will need to re-allocate funding from other interventions such as transitional housing to rapid re-housing.

We also need to think about effective targeting. Over the past few years, using the permanent housing set aside, HUD-VASH and other permanent supportive housing funding, we have created a lot of permanent supportive housing. Between 2007 and 2011 the nation’s permanent supportive housing inventory increased by 40 percent, or nearly 60,000 units. Chronic homelessness went down, but its decline was not commensurate with that increase in housing inventory.

Chronic homelessness is a complex problem, so there could be several causes for that discrepancy. The one thing we can be certain about, however, is that people experiencing chronic homelessness are not receiving enough of the permanent supportive housing. If we are going to have the impact we want – if we are going to end chronic homelessness – we need to target these units at the most vulnerable people. We need to identify and house the people with the greatest need and the longest spells of homelessness. We have seen, in community after community, that this sort of deep targeting is what brings the numbers down. So we must target the less intensive interventions at the people who are the easiest to serve, and save the most intensive interventions for the people who are the hardest to serve. And we must do this on a community-wide level.

There are two other issues I want to talk to you about today: youth experiencing homelessness, and the crisis system.

While good work has been done on youth homelessness, we are still not where we should be. We still lack crucial information about the size of the population of youth experiencing homelessness; we still lack a definitive typology; we still do not know which interventions work best and for whom. As a result we have not been able to generate the will to go to scale; we have not been able to increase resources appreciably; and we have not made much progress.

At the Alliance, we took a preliminary stab at remedying this by sizing the population and identifying its segments. We used federal survey data and academic typologies. The data are weak, but segments of the population have emerged in our research, and we have arrived at some ideas about how to move forward. Here is what we found.

  • A great many youth between 12 and 24 become homeless every year. The number is somewhere around 1.9 million. But the vast majority – 70 percent or 1.3 million – experience homelessness for a relatively short period of time.
  • The rest stay homeless longer, but they eventually return home or find housing rather quickly; and those under 18 remain connected to family or school.
  • About 80,000 youth have more serious problems, and about half of those have disabilities.
  • About 60,000 of these youth are the heads of young families of their own.

Admittedly, this typology is based on less than perfect data, and it does not tell us everything. We still need more research and more data on the population of LGBTQ kids, and on the causes and effects of the sexual exploitation of homeless youth. And the child welfare system still requires our attention: it remains unclear why anyone under 18 is homeless, given that minors are the responsibility of the state child welfare system.

What does this typology tell us? Well, just as in the population of adults experiencing homelessness, the population of youths experiencing homelessness can be divided into two groups: a large group with less intensive needs and a much smaller group with more intensive needs. For the first group, we clearly need a more robust crisis system. These youth may not be homeless for very long, but bad things can happen to them even in a few hours. And for the youth in that group who eventually return home, we need to focus more on family intervention to ensure that their return happens as quickly and safely as possible.

For the second group, where the need is the greatest, we should focus on ending their homelessness by targeting Runaway and Homeless Youth Act resources at them and ramping up housing and services. The number of high-need youth is small, making this a very solvable problem. Nevertheless, youth in this group are often screened out of programs.

When it comes to young homeless families, we need to add developmental programming and family intervention to the general homeless family system, which is where most members of young homeless families receive services.

This typology also has many policy implications. For instance, it shows that we must obtain data faster, and include youth experiencing homelessness in the 2013 point in time count. It also underscores the fact that homeless providers, advocates and researchers still lack a single, definitive management information system for the collection and reporting of outcomes on the size and characteristics of the homeless population, which means that we should merge the Runaway and Homeless Youth Management and Information System (RHYMIS) with the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). We also should incentivize existing homeless youth providers to serve the highest need kids. We can scale up the family intervention services provided by child welfare, juvenile justice and the Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Act. And we must engage to improve our child welfare and family support programs, because much of the problem of youth homelessness can still be traced back to large holes in this vital safety net.

The problem of youth homelessness will be a big issue for us in the year ahead, and we already have great partners like the National Network for Youth who are committed to making a big push to end youth homelessness.

The other issue that we at the Alliance have been examining is the homeless crisis system: how it should be sized and what it should look like. For many years now the design of the crisis system has largely been neglected, and the idea of emergency shelter as a solution has been demonized, and characterized as inadequate, as a mere “Band-Aid.”

It’s true that the shelters ALONE are not the solution, but it is equally true that the majority of people who become homeless are single, able-bodied adults for whom the interventions of permanent supportive housing and transitional housing are too intensive. As we do with other human service programs, we tend to think of the crisis system in terms of the people who stay there the longest. But in reality, the majority of people who enter emergency shelters quickly move in and then move on. For them shelter is an effective short term solution – as it was designed to be.

For most people, the shelter serves its purpose as a temporary place to stay while they work out whatever kind of housing crisis they are experiencing. Most people do not stay in the system long, and they typically do not come back, or only come back once.

The crisis system also serves a vital sorting function. People enter the system when they need to, but because it is so bare bones and so unpleasant, they have little incentive to stay longer than is absolutely necessary. In this way the system sorts the people with the greatest need, the people who require the most intensive interventions, from the majority of people who are experiencing a crisis that they can handle more or less on their own.

To design a good shelter or crisis system, we must answer the following questions.

  • What should it do?
  • What should be its overall size?
  • What types and number of specialized beds should be available? Most jurisdictions have a good number of beds for single adult men, but have few or none for couples, youth, people with pets, or for people who have active substance abuse issues.
  • Who should manage the shelter system, and who should be responsible for determining how many and what kind of beds are needed, and who gets each bed?
  • What is the relationship between shelter, detox and rehab, and what should it be?
  • What should be the length of stay?
  • How should the shelter system link to the back door?
  • Do the centralized one-stop-shops and campuses really work? Are they more effective or less effective than a decentralized approach?
  • If you want to fix your shelter system, where do you start? What is the first thing to take on, what is next, etc.?

Today we recognize that, if we are to end the problem of homelessness, we must transition from a program-based approach to a systems-based approach. Figuring out what the crisis system should look like is a crucial part of that, because it is sure to remain the front door and the point of assessment for further interventions. Re-tooling this system is absolutely critical, and something we are anxious to explore with you over the next year. But if you thought I would have answers to the questions above – not yet! We do, however, have a few ideas.

We firmly believe that the time a person spends in shelter should be very short. One key goal set by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act is that no one experience homelessness for a period longer than 30 days. Ideally, people should move through the shelter system fast. The faster people leave, the greater the turnover rate, the fewer the number of beds needed, and the greater the likelihood that the quality of shelters can be addressed, which is important, because right now the quality of shelters must be improved. In many places the standards remain very low.

To accomplish this, shelters should be a place of assessment, and shelter personnel should have a variety of tools to draw upon in order to provide the help people need to move on. More rapid re-housing tools would certainly facilitate this process, and people in the shelter system could be connected to community-based service slots. In short, shelter personnel could probably empower people in the shelter system to accomplish on their own many of the things that transitional housing and other back end interventions currently do for them.

These are some of the many things that we, at the Alliance, have been thinking about recently: how to target our resources better, how to retool programs to increase their effectiveness, how to move forward on ending youth homelessness, and how to improve our crisis systems.

Of course, I want to re-emphasize how important it is that we continue to advocate for meeting the needs of poor and homeless people, and how important it is that we make our voices heard. There is a national political debate going on about the role of government, and part of that debate concerns our mutual responsibility for each other and for the least among us. It is easy to feel like a mere observer in this debate. And if all you do is observe, that’s all you’ll be.

As I said earlier, if the people who care the most about this issue don’t speak out, who will? To make your voices heard you do not have to lobby. You do not have to be an expert on all the details of legislation. You just need to be able to express your concerns and those of your community. At present, our voices and our concerns are not being heard. If you speak up, your voice may not have an immediate impact. That’s why we need to keep speaking up, because if we don’t, I can guarantee you that we will not get anything for the people we care about.

Thank you so much for being with us at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness. The conference is going to be terrific, and it is because of all of you. We at the National Alliance to End Homelessness are tremendously grateful, and as always we are deeply honored to be your partners in the effort to end homelessness.

2nd August
written by Sharon McDonald

States have an important new opportunity to improve the employment outcomes of low-income families. In July, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released an Information Memorandum indicating the Administration’s interest in granting waivers to states for the administration of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. States may now seek waivers from the administration that allow them to experiment with new strategies to help low-income parents on TANF connect with employment.

States are required to demonstrate that 50 percent of the TANF caseload complies with work activity requirements. Advocates have long been concerned that the federal rules regarding “what counts” as a work activity is often a poor match for what many parents need to successfully prepare for, or enter, the workforce. Families in which a parent or a child has a disability are often poorly served under the current rules. Some are unable to meet the required number of hours in a work activity. Others require work preparation activities that are not countable, and so are simply not offered.

The mismatch between what families need to transition to work and what TANF agencies can provide has important consequences. Some households face impending time limits for cash assistance without ever receiving the individually tailored supports that could help them succeed in the workforce.  High numbers of families, including those that include a member with a disability, lose cash assistance because they are unable to comply with work participation requirements. This contributes to the growth in the number of families living in extreme poverty without income from employment or social benefits. It also places families at greater risk of becoming homeless.

Waivers that allow States to expand the services they offer can help those with the most significant barriers to employment succeed and help them avoid falling deeper into poverty. When TANF agencies are able to successfully transition families into the workforce, they also reduce their vulnerability to homelessness. Ensuring States have the flexibility to deploy the tools that work to help families quickly connect to work can also help reduce their need for homeless services, allowing those scarce dollars to go further and help other vulnerable families in need.

Homeless service providers and advocates should explore how their State plans to take advantage of the new opportunity made available to improve employment services to low income families. For more information, contact Sharon McDonald at smcdonald@naeh.org.

31st July
written by Lisa Stand

Image Courtesy of Kate Mereand-SinhaIn his highlights of the themes of our 2012 National Conference, our Vice President Steve Berg touched on the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in its 1999 Olmstead decision.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Act requires states to grant people with disabilities the choice of where to live, and that states must avoid placing them in living situations that segregate them from the rest of society. The Olmstead decision, and a number of cases that followed, spoke specifically about state Medicaid programs. However, the Olmstead decision is about “community integration” broadly, and has continues to shape the ways in which state programs and services promote the rights of  people with disabilities, particularly their right to live in the least restrictive settings of their choice.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has an interest in upholding Olmstead principles, as it does all federal fair housing provisions. While HUD’s purview may raise thorny questions about what kinds of housing are suitable for disabled people who are experiencing homelessness, an important, practical implication of the Olmstead decision is that it makes more resources available to house people who are experiencing chronic homelessness.

Recently, HUD published guidance about the role of public housing agencies (PHAs) in reducing inappropriate institutionalization of persons with disabilities. It is worth reading the entire document, for it gives needed context to local decision-making that can affect plans to end chronic homelessness.

For example, “persons at serious risk of institutionalization” can be included, along with those who are exiting institutions, in a local preference providing subsidies for people with disabilities. The guidance describes how such a preference can work, and offers other examples of actions a PHA can take to leverage resources and programs to realize Olmstead goals.

When states and localities make Olmstead decisions that affect mainstream housing and services programs, homeless service advocates should be involved. Participation in Delaware, for instance, resulted in people experiencing chronic homelessness being included among other groups of persons with disabilities as a target population.

Here are some ways advocates can connect with Olmstead efforts:

  • Learn more about the history of the ADA and Olmstead in your state. Most states have developed ADA compliance plans, with stakeholder consensus. The National Center for Personal Attendant Services tracks Olmstead matters, and updates state-specific plan information. To find these resources, search Olmstead on the main page. Also, the web-based resource, HCBS Clearinghouse, offers information and tools for state Medicaid reform.
  • Reach out to statewide disability groups, including state affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Look for ways to collaborate on ADA and Olmstead enforcement.
  • Advocate for people who are chronically homeless within the diverse communities of people with disabilities people in your state and locality. Describe the systems of care and proven interventions for homeless people, the role of permanent supportive housing, and collaborative possibilities.

Additional Resources

U.S. Department of Justice website dedicated to Olmstead.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights, Olmstead website.

Image Courtesy of Kate Mereand-Sinha

26th July
written by Amanda Benton

Last week, advocates from across the country participated in Capitol Hill Day 2012 in conjunction with the Alliance’s National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Washington, DC. Hundreds of conference attendees took advantage of the fact that they were in the nation’s capital to meet with their congressional delegations and educate them about homelessness in their communities and the ways in which federal policy can better support local efforts to prevent and end homelessness.

This is the third Capitol Hill Day I have planned in my time at the Alliance, and the level of participation and the dedication of this year’s conference attendees have made it the most impressive by far. Results and “report-backs” from meetings are still trickling in, so it’s too early to announce the full results of Capitol Hill Day 2012. I urge you to keep an eye on this blog next month for a full summary of the event and its immediate impact.

In the meantime, I’d like to highlight some preliminary results that we do have. Advocates attended a record of about 280 congressional meetings – an  increase of about 22 percent compared to just two years ago. That’s incredible! And nearly 70 of those were with members of congress.

We are still calculating precisely how many people participated in all of these meetings, but the statistic I am most excited to share is this: participants from a record-breaking 44 states attended congressional meetings. This means that representatives from almost every one of the 47 states represented at the conference went to Capitol Hill last week to educate policymakers on the importance of ending homelessness.

As many of you know, next week will be my last at the Alliance, as my husband and I are moving to Boston so I can pursue a graduate degree. While I’m excited about this new chapter in my life, it is a bittersweet moment. I cannot possibly describe how much I will miss working with all the incredible practitioners, state and local officials, and other stakeholders I have come to know over the past several years.

It has been a true inspiration for me to see the dedication people in this field have to ending homelessness. While not all of the people with whom I have worked would describe themselves as advocates, they have demonstrated an impressive talent for educating policymakers about the role they must play in our efforts to end homelessness.

I will miss working with many of you on a daily basis, but this year’s Capitol Hill Day is just one more piece of evidence of the homeless assistance field’s strength, capacity, and commitment to ensuring that no man, woman, or child experiences homelessness.

23rd July
written by Steve Berg

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?