Interagency Council Has Big Plans, Less Focus Or Funds For Ending Homelessness

July 6, 2010

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has now released its strategic plan. As I earlier wrote, the plan is supposed to establish priorities and strategies that the 19 agency members will jointly pursue to prevent and end homelessness within a specific timeframe.

I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what I think about it — and how I can tell you what’s in it within reasonable blog length. These two things are not unrelated.

First off, the plan is quite a piece of work — 59 pages, plus prefatory material, notes and acknowledgments. And it’s not only long, but very complex.

Four major goals, 10 objectives ranged under five major themes, 52 strategies divided among the objectives, three performance measures, tables reflecting specific agencies’ responsibilities for implementation, a review of what’s known about three major populations of homeless people and more.

This, I think, is its strength — and also its weakness.

On the positive side, it reflects a good grasp of the complexity of the problem. It’s refreshing to see a broader focus than the Bush administration’s intensive focus on chronically homeless people.

Yes, it’s got a goal to “finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in five years.” But it also sets goals and timeframes for preventing and ending homelessness among veterans and for families, youth and children. There’s also a goal sans timeframe for the unnamed populations, e.g., homeless individuals who aren’t veterans and/or classifiable as chronically homeless.

The policy shift is reflected in the acknowledgment that, for most homeless people, the problem is a gap between income and the cost of housing. Also in the themes, which include increasing both access to stable, affordable housing and economic security.

And in objectives for the latter — more “meaningful and suitable employment” for homeless people and those at high risk of homelessness and better “access to mainstream programs and services,” i.e., those not specifically targeted to homeless populations.

There’s a flip side to the reach, complexity and apparent interest in satisfying a very large and diverse group of diverse stakeholders. All aspects of the problem — and related strategies — get equal billing.

So many to-do’s for so many entities and nothing I can see to identify first-order priorities. True, the plan is supposed to be a five-year “roadmap.” But what does it provide, except for initiatives already in the President’s proposed budget, to tell agencies what they should do first and foremost?

At the same time, I see an unspoken awareness of limited federal capacities. We read a lot about interagency collaboration, better program integration and dissemination of information and best practices. The heavy lifting seems largely left to state and local public agencies and to private organizations.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room. Where’s the money for all this? Certainly not in the revenue-strapped budgets of state and local governments or in those of the nonprofits and other community organizations the President’s prefatory letter alludes to.

It’s not in his proposed budget either, notwithstanding what the plan terms its “signature initiatives” for veterans, families with children and chronically homeless people.

I found only one specific reference to new federal funding — a strategy that simply says “fund the National Housing Trust.” Perhaps this refers to the $1 billion the President is again requesting. How can it be a strategy for the ICH members?

Efforts to secure any capital funding for the Trust have thus far gone nowhere. Doubt they’re going to fare much better in a Congress that’s moving to lower the President’s ceiling on most discretionary domestic spending.

In any event, $1 billion would be a mere down payment on what would be needed to significantly increase the supply of rental housing that the target population, i.e., extremely low-income households, can afford.

Neil Donovan, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, has expressed some cautiously-worded reservations along these lines. He welcomes the plan’s vision, overall framework and commitment to engaging all stakeholders. But he finds “many of the methods … vague and without firm commitment to allocate funds and implement strategies.”

He warns of a double standard. Federal grant applications require local communities to identify clear numeric goals, timetables, funding and implementing bodies “to ensure they move from planning to action.” Thus far, nothing comparable in the federal strategic plan.

Exactly. It’s a fine thing to have the President on record as saying that “ending homelessness in America must be a national priority.” But it will take a whole lot more than the ICH roadmap to get us there.

Federal Interagency Council On Homelessness Asks What We Think

March 20, 2010

Last year’s HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act reauthorized the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and revised its mission, membership and duties.

The Council now brings together 13 Cabinet-level departments, plus five sub-cabinet and independent agencies and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The HEARTH Act charged the Council to develop a federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. The plan is supposed to be submitted to Congress on May 20 and updated annually.

The Council says the plan will represent agreement among the agencies on a set of priorities and strategies they will jointly pursue over the next five years.

The plan will guide both the development of programs and agency budget proposals. So it clearly has the potential to significantly improve and better coordinate the federal government’s diverse homelessness prevention and homeless assistance programs.

The Council is proceeding from what it calls “the moral foundation” that “no one should experience homelessness–no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.” It’s broken this aspirational goal down into four key objectives:

  • Finish the job of ending chronic homelessness
  • Prevent and end homelessness among veterans
  • Prevent and end family homelessness
  • Set a path toward ending all types of homelessness

Since it developed these, it’s apparently decided to also focus on preventing and ending youth homelessness and to explore the role of local communities, including the alignment of federal policies and funding to their homelessness prevention, emergency shelter and re-housing programs.

The Council has aimed for a transparent process, with “multiple opportunities for input, feedback and collaboration.” It seems to be doing a creditable job.

It has gathered input through six regional stakeholder meetings and several meetings during the recent conference of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Now it invites us to share our ideas and vote for ideas others have submitted.

The latter range from the very specific, i.e., provide shelters with funding for case managers, to over-arching solutions, i.e. build more affordable housing. We’ve thus got many choices and a broad field for further suggestions.

So if you want to weigh in on the federal homelessness “roadmap,” here’s your chance. But don’t dally. The deadline for public input is March 22.