The Only Federal Agency Dedicated to Homelessness Could Be Shut Down

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness helped end veteran homelessness in some places and reduce overall homelessness. The White House and House Republicans want it gone.
by | November 14, 2017
A woman helping a homeless veteran on the street.
(AP/Steven Senne)

Last week, Atlanta ended veteran homelessness, placing nearly 1,900 people into permanent housing. The news would have attracted more media buzz if three states and more than 40 communities hadn't already claimed the same achievement in the last few years. Nationally, veteran homelessness has declined 47 percent in seven years. Overall homelessness is also down 14 percent.

Now, the federal agency largely credited with making that historic progress is at risk of losing all of its funding.

“When I was working on this stuff,” says Ralph Becker, the former mayor of Salt Lake City, which was one of the first cities to end chronic veteran homelessness, “the federal role never got enough acknowledgment. The fact of the matter is, the federal resources are what made the difference.”

This year, both the White House and the U.S. House Appropriations Committee have called for eliminating the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, an independent federal agency with 20 full-time employees and an annual budget of roughly $3.5 million. The U.S. Senate, though, has a competing proposal to fully fund the agency and remove a sunset provision that Congress has repeatedly extended in the past.

With a federal budget deadline of Dec. 8 looming, it's not clear whether the council has a future after 2018.

Created in 1987 under the Reagan administration, the council is the only federal agency focused solely on homelessness. The federal government spends more than $5 billion a year on at least 26 homeless assistance programs, which are spread across more than a dozen federal agencies, including the departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Veterans Affairs (VA) and Education. The council facilitates regular meetings between cabinet secretaries from those departments. Its staff also tracks research on effective housing strategies and shares lessons with officials across the country.

Under the Obama administration, the council helped create specific criteria that communities have to meet in order to declare an end to homelessness. To date, more than 880 state and local public officials have joined a national competition to end veteran homelessness.

“It became quite competitive, and that helped,” says Becker. “Every mayor wanted to achieve that.”

The Urban Institute concluded in a report last year that terminating the council “would slow efforts to end homelessness and weaken the collective movement.”

The White House lists the council among 19 independent agencies it wants to cut in an effort “to move the Nation towards fiscal responsibility and to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government.” But the Trump administration isn't the first to question the council's existence. Last year, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, the Republican chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees housing, opposed Congress' decision to reauthorize the council.

“This program doesn’t support homeless people,” he said in a May 2016 hearing. “It pays for the salaries and expenses of HUD, for example.”

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat on the subcommittee, pushed back.

“These bureaucrats are doing their job," she said. "They’re coordinating agencies. They’re doing exactly what we would want to see other agencies do.”

This year, the subcommittee noted the success some communities have had in ending veteran homelessness, calling them “the result of hard work and effective collaboration and ... aspirational for the rest of the country.” Nonetheless, the subcommittee agreed to a proposed 85 percent funding cut, providing only enough for two employees to wind down operations next year.

Given the council’s uncertain future, the agency already has seven of its 20 positions vacant -- a fact that worries anti-homelessness advocates.

“The danger is losing the progress on ending homelessness that we’ve made,” says Amanda Andere, CEO of Funders Together to End Homelessness, a national nonprofit that represents foundations working to house the homeless.

Indeed, the Urban Institute's report found that the council deserved credit for convincing many localities to invest in permanent supportive housing rather than emergency shelters or temporary transitional housing. With help from the council, HUD and the VA shared their data and standardized the way they counted homeless veterans, making it possible to document progress over time.

Disbanding the council would signal that ending homelessness was no longer a federal priority, people told the Urban Institute. State and local officials also predicted that without the council, they would have a harder time communicating with federal agencies and navigating the federal bureaucracy.

A broad range of groups, from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans to the National League of Cities, have expressed their support for funding the council. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that deals with housing, has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would protect the council and make it a permanent agency. But it's a small line item getting lost in larger budget battles, says Barbara Poppe, a former executive director of the council.

At the same time that the council's funding is in question, the House has proposed a funding cut to the office that administers the Community Development Block Grant program and the Homeless Assistance Grants program. The current House and Senate tax reform proposals would also cut the value of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a major driver in the creation of affordable housing.

"The problem," Poppe says, "is that folks are putting out fires in many, many directions."