Administration broadens effort to fight homelessness

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Obama administration released a strategy Tuesday to end homelessness by expanding programs to secure housing for veterans and families with young children and by building on efforts to help chronically homeless people.

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq highlighting the needs of veterans and the economic crisis straining more families, the administration's plan widens the role envisioned for the federal government in curbing and ending homelessness.

It does not commit additional federal money on top of the billions of dollars already budgeted by the various agencies involved in reducing and preventing homelessness.

Instead, the 67-page strategy, drafted by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and unveiled Tuesday, details several smaller projects intended to spur collaboration among federal agencies and with local and state governments.

One project combines Section 8 housing vouchers with other anti-poverty assistance to help 6,000 families in communities with high concentrations of homeless families.

Another project couples vouchers with health and social services funded by Medicaid and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to assist 4,000 chronically homeless people move off the streets and out of shelters. Another initiative, similar to a program underway in the District, helps vulnerable veterans move swiftly into housing by linking local housing and social services with the Supportive Housing program of the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs.

"No one should be without a safe, stable place to call home, and today we unveil a plan that will put our nation on the path toward ending all types of homelessness," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who heads the 19-agency council, said in a statement.

Nationwide, about 1.5 million people experienced homelessness last year, according to HUD. In the Washington region, more than 12,000 people were homeless last year, including more than 6,000 in the District, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

From adults with severe mental illness to adolescents aging out of the foster-care system, homelessness has its roots in many societal problems. But the Obama administration's strategy emphasizes that only when people are back in a home can they be expected to address underlying problems in their lives.

This Housing First philosophy has been embraced in the District and elsewhere. In D.C., it has helped place about 1,000 people in homes, said Linda Kaufman, chief operating officer of Pathways to Housing, which works with several hundred mentally ill, chronically homeless people. "If you don't do housing, you can't address the issues of homelessness," she said.

Framed by 10 objectives, the new national strategy aims to end homelessness among veterans and the chronically homeless by 2015 and among children and families by 2020.

The Bush administration's strategy focused on the chronically homeless and as a result, said Mary Cunningham, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, tens of thousands of people are in supported housing. Under Obama, Cunningham said, that focus now includes veterans and families with children. "They didn't abandon the previous administration's initiative," she said. "They expanded it."

But even supporters of the strategy say a far larger financial commitment to housing assistance will be needed to accomplish the objectives.

"The administration does call for some added vouchers, which is terrific," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy. "But even if it's fully funded by Congress, it still would only reach a small fraction of those who are potentially eligible for housing subsidies."

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said the plan offers a compelling portrait of the causes of homelessness and ways to end it. But that's not enough, she said.

"Where it is short in my view," Foscarinis said, "is it does not make specific commitments with resources that the administration will pursue to actually fund the plan."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company