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Homelessness: 25 Years Later, It's Time to Recognize the Human Right to Housing

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This Sunday, July 22, marks the 25th anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the first major federal legislation to address homelessness. It's a bittersweet occasion: while the Act has helped, homelessness continues to grow. More action is urgently needed.

Landmark legislation when it was first enacted in 1987, the McKinney-Vento Act has grown from $350 million to over $1.9 billion in federal funds each year to communities across the country. And this federal funding has leveraged many more state, local and private resources.

Every day, thousands of programs funded by the Act help hundreds of thousands of homeless men, women and children each day. Rights created by the McKinney-Vento Act--such as the right of homeless children to an education -- help break the cycle of homelessness and poverty. Every day, the programs that the McKinney-Vento Act created prove that homelessness in America can be solved.

But it has not been solved. Homelessness today is at record levels -- with dramatic increases across the country fueled by the foreclosure crisis and the economic downturn. Families and children are the primary victims: According to federal estimates, family homelessness grew 20 percent from 2007 to 2010. Last month, a new report from the U.S. Department of Education showed that over one million schoolchildren were homeless during the 2010-2011 school year, a 13 percent increase from the previous year.

These conditions parallel the crisis in the early 1980s, before passage of the McKinney-Vento Act. That was when large-scale homelessness first starting appearing in cities, suburbs and rural areas; then, too, families were on the front lines of the crisis, which was reaching proportions not since the Great Depression. In legislative findings written into the Act, Congress declared homelessness an "immediate and unprecedented" national crisis, and affirmed that the "federal government has a clear responsibility and existing capacity" to take action to meet the "basic human needs and to engender respect for the dignity of the homeless."

But even as Congress passed the new law, its primary sponsors and advocates warned that the Act was a first step only. Advocates, myself primary among them, had proposed a three-part agenda to end and prevent homelessness; the McKinney-Vento Act was part one of that agenda, and it was focused on emergency relief. The proposed additional steps included an increase in funds for affordable housing, coupled with legal measures to prevent people from losing their homes and becoming homeless to begin with.

Over the years, the Act's programs have shifted to focus more on permanent housing and less on emergency shelter. Advocates have won important legal protections to prevent domestic violence survivors and tenants in foreclosed properties from losing their homes and becoming homeless. But these victories, while tremendously important, are not alone sufficient to end and prevent homelessness. Without major new increases in funding, in particular for permanent affordable housing, as originally envisioned, ending homelessness will remain an elusive goal.

To reach that goal we must do two things. First, we must protect and implement the victories we've won, including the McKinney-Vento Act itself. Because while many of the original McKinney-Vento programs have increased in funding, albeit insufficiently, some have been cut, and one is now fighting for its life in Congress. Title V of the Act makes unused federal properties available to homeless service providers at no cost -- to use for shelter, housing, and service programs -- providing critical resources that can spell the difference between running a program or foregoing it. It's a common sense use of otherwise vacant public resources -- yet it is now threatened with repeal in the name of deficit reduction.

Second, we must keep our eye on a bigger goal: the human right to housing. Housing is a basic human need and international human rights law protects it as a human right. Much of the world agrees. Scotland adopted a law to incrementally put in place, over 10 years, a right to housing for all homeless people. South Africa, a country with far fewer resources than ours, has the right embedded in its constitution. Our own country, in the 1949 Housing Act, stated a goal of a decent home for every American family. The U.S. has the resources -- the "existing capacity," to quote the McKinney-Vento Act -- to ensure that every American has access to a home. Why shouldn't housing be a right be a right?

Let's remember why passage of that Act was a landmark: In 1987, homelessness was not viewed as a national priority. In fact, the then-Administration considered homelessness a matter for charitable groups or, at most, local government. President Reagan, who viewed homelessness as a "lifestyle choice" as opposed to a social problem, signed the McKinney-Vento Act into law in the evening to signal his displeasure

So often, advocates for social justice are told that making change is not "politically realistic." So it's critical to remember that changing the terms of debate -- changing the political "reality" -- is possible, and it's one of the most important things that advocates can do. Now we need to do it again. Homelessness cannot be solved just by funding a few good programs. Rather, law and policy must ensure that everyone has a safe affordable place to live.

It's time to recognize the human right to housing here at home.