Where Does Funding for Homeless Programs Stand in the Federal Budget?

Now that we’re approaching the end of the Federal Fiscal Year (it ends on September 30), you may be wondering where spending levels for homeless programs stand. Under normal circumstances, the full Senate and House of Representatives would have passed spending bills by now, and they would be working to reconcile them. Circumstances have changed.

Do we have cause for hope or alarm? Well, yes and yes. This phase of the appropriations process has in recent years become so contentious and fraught that it has resulted in government shutdowns and a budgetary compromise (sequestration) that everyone agrees was a bad idea to begin with. So it should come as no surprise that the appropriations process for FY 2016 is, for the time being, stalled.

Congress is on recess at the moment, but when they return in September, we expect them to deal with the budget. One piece of the agenda will be to pass a stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown, since there probably won’t be time to come to an agreement about the budget by the end of the fiscal year. But there will also be long discussions about what the budget for the entire year should look like. Many voices in Congress from both sides of the aisle have been calling for a new budget agreement, but whether that will happen remains uncertain.

No doubt, the context of the negotiations around that deal will continue to be dominated by the spending caps that Congress set in the Budget Control Act of 2011. More commonly known as “sequestration,” the BCA caps apply to discretionary spending, the one-third or so of federal spending determined year-by-year through the appropriations process.

Unfortunately for homeless people and organizations like ours who advocate for them, virtually all HUD spending, as well as other homelessness programs at the Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) and elsewhere fall under this “discretionary” category, and are thus subject to the BCA caps.

During fiscal years 2014 and 2015, congress succeeded in relaxing the BCA caps somewhat thanks to an agreement crafted by Senator Patty Murray and Representative Paul Ryan, but that agreement will expire at the end of FY2015. This means the overall spending levels for non-defense discretionary programs will be, for all intents and purposes, nominally the same in FY 2016 as in 2015.

Unfortunately, “nominally” is the operative word here. In FY 2015, Congress also instituted many one-time-only fixes to address funding shortfalls from the caps. The absence of these fixes, which won’t (or can’t) carry into FY 2016, combined with the BCA caps, rising costs, and other factors mean that that “nominally” level funding will leave many items short-funded in FY 2016, provided the caps remain in place.

HUD spending bills have already cleared appropriations committees in both chambers, and in June the full House passed its committee’s bill. But these bills illustrate the problem. Unlike the Obama administration’s FY 2016 budget request, which proposes a healthy raise in the discretionary budget caps, both of these bills would keep the caps in place.

These bills aren’t without merit. On homeless assistance, both bills would provide funding sufficient to preserve communities’ current capacities. The Senate bill also includes $40 million for much needed new initiatives on youth homelessness that would improve data and allow a small number of communities to pilot new approaches.

Looking closer, though, we see that these bills also include some major problems.

  • The House bill would effectively eliminate the National Housing Trust Fund and would divert revenue reserved for the fund by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the HOME program, while also cutting funding to the HOME program, which is an essential source of funding for low-income housing development.
  • The Senate bill, meanwhile, would nearly eliminate funding to HOME, dramatically reducing it from $900 million this year to $66 million in FY 2016.
  • Moreover, neither bill would do what’s needed to increase Continuum of Care programs’ capacity to house homeless people.

By contrast, the spending levels proposed by the Obama administration would raise the spending caps and put enough money on the table to provide for a substantial increase in the number of resources available for homeless families, and provide communities with enough funding to finish the job of ending chronic homelessness.

It is just these kinds of insufficiencies in the House and Senate spending bills that have ground the appropriations process to a halt. We can expect the appropriations process to resume once Congress begins considering more realistic limits on federal spending; or when the nation is once again facing another government shutdown.

Last month at our 2015 National Conference on Ending Homelessness, we heard hopeful reports from across the country about tremendous opportunities to further our progress toward ending homelessness. These opportunities, we fear, could fall by the wayside if sufficient funding is lacking.

At the same time, we are seeing indications in the media every day that rental housing is becoming too expensive for low-income Americans to afford. It’s important this year for Congress to work together to address the persisting social problems of homelessness and our growing affordable housing crisis. In the overall context of the United States’ vast economy, the amount of funding we need to address them is small.

A drumbeat is beginning to sound, calling on our Senators and Representatives to make intelligent budgeting decisions so that communities have the money they need to end homelessness and make housing a little more affordable for people who are on the bottom side of economic inequality.

We hope all our friends working on homelessness around the country will make time over the next several months to keep that drumbeat going, using what you do as an example of why it’s important.