A Year in Review: 2015 Advocacy Highlights

Last year was a challenging year for homeless assistance and affordable housing advocates. Despite plenty of uphill battles against budget restraints, congressional gridlock, and competing policy priorities they persevered and achieved some very impressive gains in 2015. Most notably, their work resulted in a $115 million increase to $2.250 billion for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program in the final FY 2016 spending bill. This surpasses the increases that both the House and Senate included in their initial versions of the spending bill, which is no small feat!

What is the impact of this hard-won spending increase? It will allow for approximately $65 million in increased Continuum of Care (CoC) capacity to end homelessness: $38 million toward the development of effective strategies to end youth homelessness, and approximately $27 million for additional CoC projects to house thousands of people. It’s also important to note that, thanks to the hard work of advocates and strategic decisions made by the Senate, the bill did not expand the definition of homelessness, which means these resources will go to the people who need them the most.

The perseverance of advocates in the face of large obstacles this year was remarkable, and will result in housing for thousands more Americans than if we had thrown in the towel early on. Here is a look at how this was achieved:

“Dear Colleague” Letters

Advocates took more than 250 advocacy actions in just eight days in an attempt to urge their congressional offices to sign on to two “Dear Colleague” letters. These letters, which were circulated by Senators Jeff Merkley and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate and Rep. Gwen Moore in the House, requested increased funding for homeless assistance. The Dear Colleague letter circulating in the Senate also – for the first time in years – included a request to increase funds dedicated to the Housing Choice Voucher program. It received 23 signatures. The Dear Colleague letter circulating in the House requested the Administration’s proposed $2.480 billion for McKinney and received a record-breaking 111 signatures.

A few similar letters also circulated, and more than 28 percent of members of the House publicly signed on to letters to appropriators in support of the $2.480 billion funding level for McKinney in FY 2016. It is worthy of praise that the letter Rep. Gwen Moore circulated in the House included three Republican signers, thanks to the skillful work of New York and Pennsylvania advocates.

The Definition Issue

Advocates played a tough game of defense against a well-intentioned legislative proposal, which aimed to serve more youth by expanding the definition of homelessness. Their winning approach was an educational effort, directed at key authorizers, to address the fact that an expanded definition would set back efforts to end homelessness. It would do this by greatly increasing the number of people eligible for homeless assistance without increasing resources, requiring communities to undertake a costly assessment of poor families and youth living doubled up, and ultimately restricting HUD from using resources strategically.

Capitol Hill Day 2015

More than 340 advocates from 39 states collectively attended more than 230 hill meetings (including meetings with the offices of most appropriators) during Capitol Hill Day 2015, held in conjunction with the Alliance’s National Conference on Ending Homelessness. They made sure congressional offices heard, loud and clear, the request to raise budget caps and divert increased resources to homeless assistance and affordable housing programs. Advocates followed up on these meetings by hosting Members on program site visits and calling their offices as part of the Campaign for Housing and Community Development’s Caps Hurt Communities initiative.

Targeted Outreach

Once congressional leaders struck a deal to raise the budget caps, advocates in the districts and states of key appropriators and congressional leaders made a strong final push. That push was to encourage their offices to take advantage of the unique opportunity and put funding – aimed at ending chronic homelessness and reducing homelessness among families and youth – on the table.

There are other notable bright spots of the FY 2016 spending bill worth mentioning. It includes $60 million for approximately eight thousand new HUD-VASH vouchers for homeless veterans. And, thanks to the hard work of advocates and our national partners, it did not raid the National Housing Trust Fund to pay for other housing programs, nor did it cut the PATH and SAMHSA Homeless Services programs.

Despite the impressive gains, the final spending bill brought real disappointments, so advocates have plenty to work on this year. After the budget caps were lifted, Congress did not prioritize HUD programs. As a result, the bill falls $230 million short of the $2.480 billion requested for McKinney and does not include the sequestration restoration vouchers targeted for vulnerable populations in the Administration’s Budget request, including FUP vouchers that had been included in the Senate’s initial bill. You can read Steve Berg’s more detailed analysis of what this bill means for ending homelessness here.

We are so incredibly thankful to our advocates for carving time out of their hectic daily work to end homelessness in their communities. The above achievements demonstrate the effectiveness of our collective work. We look forward to continuing this work to secure vital resources to end homelessness in America when the President’s FY 2017 Budget Proposal is released in February.

Please contact me at jklein@naeh.org to get involved in this year’s campaign – the stronger our grassroots advocacy effort is, the more attention Congress will pay to ending homelessness!