With the explosion of homeless people in the early 1980s, Congress was slow to react. Finally in the mid 1980s increasing public pressure caused a bipartisan commission to recommend changes. Chief sponsor of the legislation was Stewart A. McKinney who died before seeing the legislation become law. A reluctant President Ronald Reagan signed the McKinney Act, which defined homelessness, created a funding stream, and mandated a coordinated planning mechanism. In 1987, Congress allocated funds to move homeless people into more stable housing, created a source of funding for emergency shelters, and funded supportive housing services. Supportive housing services are programs that assist people with increasing skills or their income.
The Clinton administration studied the problem, and decided a "Continuum of Care" in each community would better serve the homeless population. They consolidated all the major funding programs under one large grant application. Instead of each program competing against every other program in the country, each community was given a certain portion of the funding to divide among their service providers. HUD still maintained oversight responsibility for the grant, but forced the local government to do planning and coordination. This was the closest to block granting the funds without totally relinquishing control of the funds.
HUD set up a grant application that mandated a "comprehensive community planning process," and they designated which entities had to participate in the planning. The Veterans Administration, the Mental Health Board, the Public Housing Authority, Alcohol and Drug Board, AIDS services, the local municipal government, the County, homeless people, among others. If the planning process as documented in the grant is sufficient, the programs in the grant are eligible for funding. Housing, supportive services, and transitional shelters (shelters that allow people to stay for up to two years) all fall under the same grant. Emergency shelters (30-90 day shelters) as well as day shelters do not fall under this Continuum of Care grant. Within a local community, a planning group is constructed, and they decide on the priorities as well as which programs are recommended for funding.
One of the tensions within this Continuum of Care funding process or Supportive Housing Program (SHP) is that those communities that do not do a good job of planning receive no funds. In 1998, both Dayton and Akron were completely shut out of their portion of the federal homeless SHP funding. Also, this grant process forces very expensive housing programs to compete against social services for the limited pool of funds. Finally, there is a very difficult formula for deciding the local share of the SHP funds. An example of this disparity is that Columbus, Ohio has a similar population as the city of Cleveland but receives one half of the funding.
The involvement of homeless people in the process has also created some tension on a national level. While HUD mandates within the grant that homeless people must be a part of every step of the process, they do not seem to enforce this provision. Some communities paper over the involvement of homeless people, while others genuinely try to get the opinions and expertise of those on the street. Coalitions in San Francisco, New York and Baltimore have lodged complaints with HUD over the politicizing of the SHP funds and the lack of involvement by small grassroots organizations and homeless people.
The total allocation for 2000 for the SHP program and the Emergency Shelter Grant program was $1.025 billion dollars. The just completed HUD budget has a slight increase in funding for 2001, and requires communities to use 30% of the funds for housing. Most studies at the national level have shown that these funds are woefully inadequate, and many of the funds are making very little impact on homelessness
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #45 - 2001