Since 1995, when then Assistant Secretary of HUD Andrew Cuomo came to Washington with an idea called the “Continuum of Care,” a seemingly endless procession of homeless assistance reauthorization bills has marched through Congress. All follow essentially the model Cuomo originally set: a formula allocation to jurisdictions, which would be required to plan and implement a coordinated and comprehensive response to homelessness. No bill has managed to become law. In the absence of legislation, Cuomo has incrementally implemented the Continuum of Care, with which the majority of local providers are reasonably satisfied.
Nevertheless, the HUD Homeless Assistance Grant program needs to be reauthorized. The current system operates largely without the benefit of statutory protection. A new HUD secretary from any party could easily change the program to suit his or her own views and philosophy.
The reauthorization bill currently under consideration is Rep. Lazio’s (R-NY) and Frank’s (D-MA) HR 1073, the Homeless Housing Programs Consolidation and Flexibility Act. It would provide $1.02 billion for FY2001 and such sums as necessary until 2004, distributed to local and state jurisdictions. These would in turn have to allocate at least 50 percent to nonprofits. Seventy percent of the funds would be distributed through the same funding formula currently used to distribute Continuum of Care funding (although HUD would be instructed to examine new formula options) and could be used to fund shelter, services, transitional housing and permanent housing. The remaining 30 percent would be distributed through a national competition targeted for permanent housing projects. Although this bill has not yet passed on the House floor and there is no companion bill in the Senate, it seems likely to move forward.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness has evaluated HR 1073 on the basis of principles we believe should govern any new federal homeless assistance legislation. We believe that any bill should improve providers’ ability to directly and measurably assist homeless people, and that the thrust of this assistance should be their achievement of permanent housing. Based on this, NAEH sees both difficulties and benefits in HR 1073.
NAEH is concerned about the program’s formula allocation. We base our concern not on the block granting of the program (we believe the program already functions as a block grant), nor on the actual formula allocation (we believe it is possible and fair to devise a formula that more accurately delivers funding based on the incidence of homelessness rather than on the grant writing proficiency of homeless assistance providers). Rather, our concern lies with the vastly increased role of state and local governments in delivering assistance to homeless people.
This bill proposes to deliver all funds through state and local governments. It further proposes that jurisdictions can expend 50 percent of funds to provide assistance. Eligible activities are broadly defined. We are concerned about the significant shift away from the faith, voluntary, and advocacy communities that have traditionally addressed homelessness and into the hands of state and local governments. We believe the current primacy of nonprofits in designing and delivering homeless assistance should be maintained. We are also concerned about the diminished federal role. At present, the federal government can examine the nature of proposed assistance, which it measures against a “continuum of care” scheme that requires comprehensive and coordinated assistance, as well as broad local participation in decision making. Funds can be, and frequently are, withheld from applicants that fail to meet these tests. This prevents localities from focusing too much on band-aid approaches or failing to address the needs of any significant sub-population. HR 1073 essentially allows jurisdictions to receive funds “up front,” without identifying the specific projects or sponsors. Although HUD can take some actions after the fact, we believe that over time this will result in reducing the effective federal protections currently available.
Among the bill’s elements that we very much favor is the permanent housing grant program, although we believe it should be more firmly targeted to housing for disabled people. The shifting of Shelter Plus Care renewals to Section 8 is a very important move in the right direction, as is language prompting jurisdictions to look at their discharge planning processes. An advantage of involving state and local governments is the amount of additional resources they can contribute to the mix, and this bill does require significant match funds, although half of this responsibility can be shifted to nonprofit sponsors. Nonprofit involvement in decision-making is retained through the creation of local boards to design the program, monitor it, and report on its effectiveness. Further, language demanding that outcomes drive the program, although not as strong as we wish, is a step in the right direction.