An open letter to President Joe Biden and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge
The following open letter, organized by LAHSA and signed by more than 20 regional public homeless agencies, was transmitted to the United States Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Housing and Urban Development on April 6, 2021.
Dear President Biden and Secretary Fudge,
A little less than one year ago, the leaders of every regional Continuum of Care (CoC) — the public agencies that coordinate the delivery of homeless services through hundreds of nonprofits, city departments and their own staff — could see a looming catastrophe approaching, a swift killer about to join the slow killer that is homelessness in America.
Then something remarkable happened: everyone else saw it coming too. Despite tragic losses, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been better funded and better aligned than any other program to combat homelessness in the time that we, the undersigned executive directors of thirty Continua of Care, have served the public.
Why? We finally saw homelessness treated as the public health crisis that it is.
Today political leaders and their publics share a clear goal: to help as many people get back into housing as possible.
We cannot afford to retreat from that goal. Instead, we should establish the urgency that fueled our COVID-19 response as the new normal for addressing homelessness. We should make housing the vaccine for homelessness.
The consensus that housing ends homelessness is, surprisingly, a fragile one. Prior to COVID-19, homeless services leaders across the country knew we needed a consolidated emergency response to this humanitarian crisis, but we were operating with insufficient resources to fulfill confusing and imprecise mandates. We were asked to repair or provide food security systems, domestic violence responses, and post-hospital rehabilitation. We stretched loaves of bread to feed dozens, and single shelter beds to serve tens of thousands. From Harlem to Honolulu, our successes at rehousing people were dwarfed by more people falling into homelessness than our systems could keep up with.
Even if that inflow stopped tomorrow, we would have neither the funds nor the homes to serve the number of people who are currently unhoused. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the nation faces a shortage of 7 million affordable homes. Since 1979, Congress has slashed annual funding for Community Development Block Grants — the most flexible program that local governments can use to preserve or create affordable housing — by 77%. And only one in four households eligible for Section 8 vouchers ever actually receive one, due to limited funding. Meanwhile, our nation’s income disparities have grown wider than ever, forcing more and more people into homelessness.
Scarcity forced us into lose-lose dilemmas: should we bow to pressure from squeaky wheels and use law enforcement strategies to push people out of sight, or should we ask the public to accept tent cities as part of the community fabric? Should we use limited funds to achieve a meaningful end to homelessness for too few, or spread resources too thin to offer people living outside modest hygiene services, mass shelters, and storage?
Only the threat of swift, mass death on the street pushed the communities we serve past these dilemmas. People living outdoors cannot self-isolate or social distance. Over-crowded congregate sites rapidly decompressed to avoid becoming hubs of super-spreading. Our systems identified the most vulnerable, moved many of them into hotel rooms, and put them on a path to permanent housing with appropriate services.
Now we’re confronting the threat of an “eviction tsunami” that could push even more people into homelessness. As the affluent have enjoyed the safety and comfort of working from home and corporations have reaped huge financial gains, the financial fallout of the pandemic has fallen squarely on lower-income people — the vast majority of whom are people of color — who were already struggling to keep up with the rising cost of housing and may soon find themselves on the street. Some predict we will see a more than 40% increase in the number of unhoused people. If our systems struggled before the pandemic, can they possibly withstand what’s next?
They can if we heed the three big lessons of the pandemic: set consistent priorities, fund solutions adequately, and respond to homelessness as a public health crisis — a crisis each one of us must commit to solving with urgency, especially those of us with the means to help.
This last point cannot be overstated. Housing is a social determinant of health. COVID-19 reinforced that good housing is good healthcare, and it will remain so even after unhoused people have vaccines. Housing makes it possible to isolate. To rest. To receive care.
If we agree that housing is the vaccination for homelessness, what would logically follow, and what would stop?
We would help people get back into housing as quickly as possible with the intent of rehousing them all.
We would recognize and properly fund “upstream” safety nets and systems — foster care, criminal justice, housing construction and employment — while unraveling the structures of racism that have resulted in disproportionate Black and brown suffering.
We would stop holding CoCs accountable for ancillary supports such as food, mental and physical rehabilitation, and hospital discharge reception that stretch our funds so thin enough that they are barely even band-aids.
Instead, CoCs should be held accountable for the singular, critical task of helping people get back into housing that is connected to needed services and keeping them housed.
To achieve this, the Biden administration should offer an implementable, scalable, and funded plan in support of proven interventions that end homelessness. Those should include specific practices that bore fruit during COVID-19, such as directing FEMA to address people experiencing homelessness as a special vulnerable population. Congress should maintain the flow of flexible, federal dollars that originally came through the CARES Act and restore funding that has been stripped over the past decade to equip communities to rapidly rehouse people.
The Biden plan should lay out two clear goals for state, county, city governments, and CoCs:
- Rehouse as many people as quickly as possible into permanent environments such as existing apartments or converted hotels and motels; and
- Bolster those efforts with prevention and support strategies — especially for people who have already experienced homelessness.
This does not mean abandoning ancillary features of homeless services. It especially does not negate the need for safe, dignified, temporary shelter. But shelter must be clearly subordinate to permanent housing. The alternative is the “warehousing trap” — getting people out of the elements, out of sight, only to leave them in limbo.
It would be all too easy to allow the unity, resolve and resourcing we have today to evaporate in favor of the over-complicated, resource-starved homeless services system of the past. The arrival of an effective COVID-19 vaccine comes as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel to a nation battered by the pandemic. Now is the time to agree that housing is the vaccine for homelessness.
CA-500, San Jose/Santa Clara City & County CoC
CA-600, Los Angeles City & County CoC
CA-601, San Diego City and County CoC
CA-602, Santa Ana, Anaheim/Orange County CoC
CA-603, Santa Maria/Santa Barbara County CoC
CA-607, Pasadena CoC
CA-608, Riverside City & County CoC
CA-611, Oxnard, San Buenaventura/Ventura County CoC
FL-501, Tampa/Hillsborough County CoC
FL-600, Miami-Dade County CoC
GA-500, Atlanta CoC
HI-501, Honolulu City and County CoC
IN-503, Indianapolis CoC
MN-500, Minneapolis/Hennepin County CoC
OR-501, Portland, Gresham/Multnomah County CoC
OR-506, Hillsboro, Beaverton/Washington County CoC
TX-600, Dallas City & County, Irving CoC
TX-700, Houston, Pasadena, Conroe/Harris, Ft. Bend, Montgomery Counties CoC
VA-500, Richmond/Henrico, Chesterfield, Hanover Counties CoC
VA-513, Harrisonburg, Winchester/Western Virginia CoC
VA-514, Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania, Stafford Counties CoC