A report released by the Trump administration last month was supposed to propose a strategic plan for the federal response to ending homelessness. Instead, the report attacks a proven strategy, called Housing First, that is behind over a decade of progress reducing homelessness. Critics say the report ignores the structural causes of homelessness, like rising rents and stagnant incomes.
The report — Expanding the Toolbox: The Whole of Government Response to Homelessness — was issued by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). As USICH is one of several federal agencies that provide shelter and services for people experiencing homelessness, the report is supposed to update the national strategy to end homelessness.
The report claims that homelessness has been rising since the federal government adopted the Housing First strategy. The Housing first approach gets people experiencing homelessness into stable housing as quickly as possible. This is usually done with “rapid re-housing” vouchers that provide rental assistance to lease private apartments. Supportive services are usually offered before getting housing, while the resident is using the assistance, and after they move if needed.
USICH says that unsheltered homelessness rose even as more rapid re-housing vouchers were issued. Instead of proposals to reduce housing costs or create new units, the report places the focus on addressing individual problems through increased services and work requirements.
The plan proposes what it calls a “trauma-informed approach to care that addresses the real root causes of homelessness.” The plan focuses on:
- The importance and power of the dignity of work. The report calls for adding work requirements and preconditions before homeless people are eligible for services.
- Mental health and trauma-informed care are critical. The report says that mental health services need to be improved for people experiencing homelessness, but also emphasizes opening more facilities for intensive treatment.
- Affordable construction leads to affordable housing. This section echoes the Trump administration’s push that reducing regulations will encourage builders to develop more affordable housing.
- Prevention will save money while reducing trauma. The report proposes eviction prevention resources, services for youth exiting foster care, services for people leaving incarceration, and strengthening support for faith-based organizations working with homeless populations.
- The need for population specific programming. The report proposes improving services for homeless veterans, families with children, youth and unaccompanied women.
- Renewed focus on racial disparities. The report proposes analyzing community data to better understand how the homeless shelter and service system can combat racial inequities.
- Promotion of alternatives to criminalizing people experiencing homelessness. Provide services and housing assistance to people leaving prisons and jails, revise local codes to decriminalize loitering and similar offenses.
- Importance of national emergency readiness. Plan for emergencies with local partners and ensure training in emergency preparedness.
Advocates for people experiencing homelessness have strongly criticized the USICH report. In its statement in response to the report, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) pointed out that the Housing First approach has been critical to reducing homelessness before the Trump administration took office. The report celebrates the success of programs that reduced veteran homelessness by more than half, while the Veterans Administration credits this success to Housing First.
Nan Roman, President and CEO of NAEH, said that the report does not focus on the real problem; there just are not enough affordable places for low-income renters to live.
“Homeless programs, including those funded by the federal government, are housing more people than ever. But they can’t keep up with the number of people who are becoming homeless because rents are rising faster than incomes,” Roman said.
The Housing First strategy calls for “wrap-around services,” but it also says that people need a stable place to live if these services are going to help. Adding work requirements and preconditions to getting a rapid re-housing voucher will just shut out thousands of people from stable housing.
Advocates for homeless people with mental health and substance abuse disorders support proposals to increase services. However, they are wary about emphasizing institutional care over community-based solutions. Would the report authors accept a “Medicare for All” kind of program? One could argue that accessible health care would have a huge impact on keeping people with mental illness and substance abuse problems off of the streets.
Advocates also support other proposals in the report. Decriminalizing homelessness has already begun in western states, thanks to federal court rulings. Eviction prevention resources like rental assistance and access to legal counsel will help millions of renters avoid homelessness, especially during the pandemic. Encouraging local service providers and first responders to work together and plan ahead will help many families avoid long-term homelessness when disaster strikes.
Although the report calls for a renewed focus on racial disparities, the Trump administration’s actions have hurt efforts to end segregation. USICH proposes that states and cities gather data about racial segregation and housing discrimination, but the administration suspended the requirement to gather this information a couple of years ago.
More recently, HUD eliminated the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. This rule required local governments to use that data to end discrimination and reverse segregated housing patterns. Failure to take meaningful action could put their federal housing and community development funding at risk.
According to a statement issued by advocates for people experiencing homelessness, the USICH report is no real strategic plan at all. Much of the data cited is misleading or comes from discredited sources. It is really just a mash-up of various broad proposals. Most importantly, it does not clearly say what the federal role should be in coordinating an end to homelessness, putting most of the burden on local governments and charitable organizations.
This report ignores the biggest reasons for the rise in homelessness. There is not enough affordable housing, incomes are stagnating, and rents are rising. There are certainly a lot of people among the chronically homeless population with mental health and substance abuse disorders. More outreach and services are definitely needed, but mental institutions should not be the first choice.
Coordinated federal leadership led to over a decade of progress reducing homelessness. The Trump administration has spent four years pulling back from the federal commitment to end homelessness. As they boast about veterans homelessness being reduced more than half, they propose over the last four budgets to eliminate the VASH rapid re-housing vouchers that made this possible. Housing First works because it makes sense. People need a stable place to live before they can get back on their feet.