07/25/2012 - So why no party? Personal reflections on the 25th anniversary of the McKinney Act

I'm a person who loves a good celebration - whether it's a birthday party or a housewarming for new neighbors or marking a milestone in an organization's history.  This week, we could have celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness and enactment of the landmark Stewart B. McKinney Act. Instead, I'm more saddened than celebratory.

Twenty five years ago, I was working in Cincinnati as part of the movement to end homelessness. I was active in the leadership of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and Bethany House of Hospitality (now Bethany House Services). At the time, we believed that the passage of the McKinney Act signaled that the country had found the political will to end homelessness. We knew that the rising tide of homelessness was caused by job loss due to the recession, housing costs that were rising faster than wages and benefits, and holes in the safety net. We called out for "Housing Now!" but instead got only temporary programs.  

The McKinney Act and the mandate for the USICH was to establish targeted funding to create and expand temporary homeless services—emergency shelter, transitional housing, vocational training and adult education—and  health care, mental health and addiction treatment.  Little did we understand that the appropriations under the McKinney Act were not a "downpayment" on longer term change that would result in a reinvestment of federal resources in affordable housing development. There was no second act that that provided increased federal funding for affordable housing despite repeated attempts and near misses to establish and fund the National Housing Trust Fund. The consequence is that the supply of affordable housing has shrunk and the availability of rental housing subsidies is far, far less than is needed. Over the past two and a half decades, the gap between housing costs and household incomes has widened, and too often advocates are resigned to calling it a victory if affordable housing programs stave off steep cuts. 

Despite my somber outlook toward "celebrating" this anniversary, there is cause to recognize recent good news: The annual growth of homelessness has slowed and even reversed in many communities despite the challenges presented by the slow economic recovery. This trend appears to be a result of the focus on permanent supportive housing for persons experiencing chronic homelessness and the adoption of prevention and rapid re-housing strategies rather than expanding shelter or transitional housing programs. We're also seeing more communities, as well as our federal agencies, working collaboratively to knit together scarce resources to get to real results  like shorter and fewer episodes of homelessness and improved housing outcomes in the most effective and cost-efficient ways.

So I'm marking this 25th anniversary by re-dedicating myself to the cause that no family, no child, no youth, no Veteran, no man or woman should be without a safe, decent place to call home. Housing Now!

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