09/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Secretary Donovan Re-Energizes Campaign to End Homelessness

I was at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference in Washington, DC from July 28-31, listening to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan sum up what's been accomplished in recent years and what remains to be done to prevent and end homelessness.

Earlier in the month, HUD released its 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, a study of homelessness from one year to the next, and the Secretary is focusing on how we need to redouble our efforts in the midst of the worst economic downturn in memory.

In its Assessment, HUD concludes overall chronic homelessness held steady from 2007 to 2008, a more welcomed piece of news than if it had increased significantly during that time frame.

I believe this small bright spot is due, in large part, to the fact that 11% more supportive housing units were made available to homeless people over the same period last year. Supportive housing effectively addresses chronic homelessness by providing stable, permanent homes and care for individuals and families facing multiple medical and behavioral challenges. People who were once written off as unwilling or unable to be housed and treated are succeeding in supportive housing.

As Secretary Donovan said: "The fact is we have now proven that we can house anyone. Our job now is to house everyone - to prevent and end homelessness."

We certainly want to see more progress, and it is clear supportive housing is making a difference. In addition to the recent Assessment, the 2006 to 2007 HUD report shows a decrease in chronic homelessness and also a marked increase in supportive housing units.

Although the numbers provide hope, more must be done to end long-term homelessness and respond to the increasing needs of vulnerable families, veterans, and homeless people with disabilities who are being discharged from hospitals, treatment programs and correctional institutions.

One way to effectively confront homelessness is to further target the supportive housing that is available to those most in need of this higher service model. As Secretary Donovan has noted, one troubling aspect of the new HUD Assessment is the unfortunate increase in the number of homeless families, particularly in suburban and rural areas. This is likely a reflection of the beginnings of the economic downturn that started in 2008 and the consequences of earlier administrations' policies cutting the Section 8 housing voucher program.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing is doing its part and has been addressing the issue of families facing homelessness by supporting important legislative and policy changes, including:

  • Efforts to capitalize the National Housing Trust Fund to significantly expand the pool of affordable housing;
  • Successful advocacy for enactment of McKinney-Vento reauthorization, recently signed by President Obama, which includes increased resources for the prevention of homelessness, designates 10 percent of funds for the development of permanent housing for families, and expands the definition of homelessness to include families who are doubled-up and highly unstable or at imminent risk to lose their housing; and,
  • Working to secure more federal dollars for Section 8 vouchers and other mainstream social safety net programs.

CSH applauds the Obama Administration and Congress for their decision to use Recovery Act funds to fight homelessness and create more affordable and supportive housing. At the conference, Secretary Donovan spoke about how HUD will begin reporting on homelessness on a quarterly basis to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of the economic crisis and to better inform public policy. In fact, their "Homeless Pulse Project" for the first quarter of 2009 is now available for public review.

Secretary Donovan also made a compelling case for why ending homelessness is so closely linked to healthcare reform. He is citing several studies that conclude that supportive housing reduces many public service and healthcare costs while improving outcomes for patients.

He goes so far as to say supportive housing "is an ideal platform for advancing cost savings in the country's health care system."

Secretary Donovan's remarks are refreshing and reflect an Administration that is taking the problem of homelessness seriously.

As more families confront the possibility of losing their homes, a strong response from Washington today is vital to ensuring that future HUD assessments reflect a decline in homelessness across the board. Holding steady beats an increase in homelessness, especially in this bad economy, but there is no substitute for policies that ensure fewer of our neighbors will face the pain or prospect of being homeless.