Reviewing Congress’s To-Do List on Ending Homelessness

The House of Representatives has adjourned until after the November election, and the Senate will soon follow. Here are the actionable things related to homelessness that Congress got done (or is just finishing up); and the one big thing that isn’t done yet.

What They Did Already:

VA appropriations/SSVF cap increase — Congress passed its spending bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This bill and the accompanying report don’t show all the details, but one thing that was spelled out is another nice increase for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. SSVF provides grants to nonprofits for rapid re-housing and homelessness prevention for veterans and their families, and has had an important role in helping communities reduce homelessness among veterans. Next year $380 million will be available.

Congress also fixed a problem with the program that had prevented VA from spending the entire $340 million from the year before. The bill to raise the SSVF cap will allow the rest of last year’s money to quickly be released, and another round of new money to be put out for competition. Anyone involved with an SSVF program that did not receive the expected amount of funding when awards were announced a few weeks ago should contact VA about whether the rest is on the way.

Labor/HHS appropriations — Programs at the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education have been funded for FY 2019. This includes a number of targeted programs for people experiencing homelessness. For the most part these were funded at the same levels as last year, but one exception was a well-earned increase in the Education for Homeless Children and Youth account, increased from $85 million to $93.5 million.

Opioid package — Congress has passed and sent to the President another major legislative package to combat drug addiction. This bill, HR 6, is wide-ranging, but one particular provision is a demonstration to provide flexible housing assistance for people who are homeless and struggling with addiction. Funding will run through a new add-on to the Community Development Block Grant program. Funding may be included in the upcoming FY 2019 Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) appropriations bill; or it may have to wait until FY 2020. The bill also calls for a report to Congress and additional technical assistance on efforts by states to use Medicaid for housing-related services for people with addictions who are homeless.

What They Still Need to Do: HUD Appropriations

Not all spending bills have made it through Congress. One that didn’t will include funding for HUD. Programs are funded through December 7, and Congress will attempt to finish this work by then. Both the House and Senate bills included modest increases for the programs most important to ending homelessness.

Homeless assistance — This is the account that includes funding for the Continuum of Care, and for Emergency Solutions Grant. The House bill included an increase of $58 million, the Senate bill $99 million. Either bill would maintain programs at existing capacity in the face of rising rents, and provide small amounts for new initiatives regarding youth (Senate bill), unsheltered people (House bill), and/or domestic violence survivors (both bills). Neither bill, however, includes additional help for communities that want to do more for other populations, or are seeing large increases in the number of people being evicted, so the Alliance has continued to advocate for a final bill at a higher level.

Tenant-based rental assistance — This account funds the Housing Choice Voucher program, sometimes known as Section 8 vouchers. There is substantial difference between the House and Senate bills in the amount provided to fund existing vouchers, although funding all existing vouchers is a strong priority for appropriators and the final bill will probably include sufficient funds to do so. The two bills also include different small increases to fund new vouchers for specific initiatives and groups: HUD-VASH for housing chronically homeless veterans (both bills); a mobility demonstration to test ways for tenants to use Section 8 to move to better neighborhoods (House bill); Family Unification Program vouchers for youth exiting the Child Welfare system (Senate bill); and additional Section 811 Mainstream vouchers for people with disabilities (both bills, but substantially more in the House bill).

The new opioid package — See above. Funding for the housing demonstration remains uncertain.

Initial Florence recovery package — Nearly 2,000 people were made homeless in the Carolinas and vicinity by Hurricane Florence. An initial recovery package is being developed and will be considered either as part of appropriations or separately.

What We’ll Need to Do

The HUD spending bill is now part of a batch of other bills that have been enacted short-term (in this case, through December 7) with a “continuing resolution.” Ideally, Congress will come back after the election, pass all these bill for the full fiscal year, and the President will sign them. But if past experience is any indicator, it won’t go that smoothly. To get what we need, advocacy will be important.

Take advantage of campaign season — During election season, members of Congress are in their home districts and often accessible to the public. They may be interested in a site visit at a homelessness program. They may be available for meetings. They may be participating in public question and answer events. All are opportunities to let them hear a message that homelessness is bad in your community, that the community is coming together to end it, and that Members of Congress have an important role to play. That includes by advocating with Appropriations leadership for better funding.

After the election, push hard for better HUD funding and finishing appropriations — Congress is scheduled to return on November 13 (subject to change), and it will be important that they hear a constant drumbeat that housing and homelessness are issues that need to be addressed.

Please stay tuned to find out how you can participate. The Alliance will have tools available for communicating this message, and we hope you’ll share your voice.