If you think that homelessness has always been with us, you’re not alone. But in fact, homelessness first became a national crisis in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration initiated a major retrenchment of social programs.
In response to the Reagan cuts, I helped lead a successful campaign for the first major federal legislation to address homelessness. Signed into law by a reluctant President Reagan on July 22, 1987, and now known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, that legislation was supposed to be a first, emergency step only, to be followed by measures to end and prevent homelessness.
Thirty years later, that promise remains unfulfilled, and a new trend has emerged to criminalize homelessness and poverty. The Trump administration’s call for massive new cuts and stepped-up policing will only deepen the crisis.
It’s time for a new campaign. As criminalization increases and affordable housing shrinks, advocates are coming together to call for housing — not handcuffs.
During the 1980s, housing took some of the harshest hits: the federal commitment to new units of low-income housing went from 347,600 in 1979 to 2,630 in 1983. These cuts followed big losses in the private market, as developers replaced inexpensive single room occupancy housing with luxury and commercial properties. Nationally, a million units were destroyed in the 1970s alone.
By the mid-1980s, as families and individuals in cities, suburbs, and rural areas were squeezed out of housing, homelessness was clearly a national crisis. The Reagan administration dismissed it as a “lifestyle” choice — much as current housing secretary Ben Carson is now doing in calling poverty a “state of mind.”
But we brought together a bipartisan coalition with diverse motivations — including faith, social justice, and personal family experiences — and in 1987, despite the political odds, we won enactment of the first major, and still only, major federal legislation to address homelessness.
That was a big victory, won against steep political odds, but we knew it wasn’t enough to solve the problem. At the time, Congress promised to follow up with longer-term solutions to address the shortage of affordable housing. But instead, the gap between available affordable housing and persons who need it has only deepened.
Today, only 26 percent of those poor enough to be eligible for federal housing assistance actually receives it. Even Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is feeling the housing pinch — and calling for housing subsidies for members of Congress.
For poor and homeless Americans, the situation is much more dire. Over the years, we’ve won increased funding for the McKinney-Vento Act, but it is far from enough to meet the need. Emergency shelter, at best a short-term bandaid, is in short supply, leaving many people — including families, veterans, and young people on their own — no option but to struggle to survive in public places.
Even worse, cities across the country are responding by passing laws to make homelessness a crime. In a misguided and futile effort to “sweep” unsheltered homeless people from public view, these cities are spending taxpayer dollars to arrest, fine and jail people simply for having nowhere to go. According to a recent report, over the past 10 years, such laws have increased by as much as 143 percent.
The Trump budget includes a 13 percent cut to housing that threatens to push more people on the streets, which would increase homelessness. At the same time, the administration’s call for stepped-up enforcement of laws aimed at minor crimes threatens to exacerbate its criminalization. These threats are galvanizing a new campaign known as Housing Not Handcuffs.
The campaign calls for a shift away from the current trend of criminalizing homelessness and toward housing-based solutions to end and prevent homelessness, at all levels of government. Studies show that housing is much less expensive than criminalizing homelessness or even offering temporary shelter. Now city officials are joining advocates to endorse the campaign.
Federal funding for housing must increase — not decrease. At a time when the gap between the need for affordable housing and its availability is growing, the proposed Trump budget would slash housing vouchers for 250,000 households. Congress should not only reject these cuts — it should support increased funding for affordable housing. It’s long past time for Congress to fulfill the promise it made 30 years ago.
To prevent another, 1980s style surge in homelessness, we must fight any cuts. But we must also build a large and diverse coalition for housing — not handcuffs.
This piece was originally published in “The Hill.”
Maria Foscarinis is founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a nonprofit legal group dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness in the United States.