The CARES Act (P.L. 116-136) includes many provisions that will be important for communities seeking to keep homeless people healthy and prevent increases in homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
EMERGENCY SOLUTIONS GRANTS: The new law includes $4 billion for homeless assistance, to be distributed through the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) program. ESG is a formula grant to states and local governments, and the program funds a broad range of activities for people who are homeless or who are at risk of homelessness, which in the new law includes anyone with income below 50 percent of area median income.
The new law eliminates requirements for matching funds, local planning, and procurement standards, as well as the cap on shelter funding and habitability and environmental review standards for temporary emergency shelters. The new law also allows up to ten percent of the funding to be used for administration.
The HUD Secretary is given authority to waive almost any requirement of the regular ESG program, if the flexibility provided by the new law is insufficient.
Finally, the new law includes this prohibition: “none of the funds provided under this heading in this Act may be used to require people experiencing homelessness to receive treatment or perform any other prerequisite activities as a condition for receiving shelter, housing, or other services.”
Funding will be released in two waves. The first wave will use the regular ESG formula, under a 30-day time frame, and will include up to $2 billion of the $4 billion. The first wave is way late, which inspired Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), the chair and ranking member of the House subcommittee that oversees funding for HUD, to wrte a May 20, 2020, letter of concern to the Department about the slow pace of funding distrbution.
The second wave will be distributed based on a new formula developed by HUD, taking into account the needs of states and communities to deal with COVID-19.
Additional information is provided in the specific issue area for COVID-19 on other relevant items, including Community Development Block Grants, State and Local Governments Relief Fund, personal checks and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Funding for Homeless Assistance Grants: The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received a $141 million increase in Homeless Assistance Grants (HAG) in FY20, raising total funding to almost $2.8 billion. For FY21, the Alliance is seeking to increase HAG funding to $3.4 billion.
The Alliance has surveyed Continuums of Care (CoCs) to identify how they’d use just a 10% increase to enhance homelessness services in their communities, and the results are being passed on to lawmakers as they consider the new funding level for HAG.
A March 16 letter organized by Representatives Gwen Moore (D-WI-4) and John Katko (R-NY-24) to the leaders of the House Transportation-Housing & Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, which writes the funding bill for HUD, called for a substantial increase in HAG funding, and it was signed by more than 170 lawmakers.
Another letter, one organized by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), which was signed on to by almost 40 Senators, was sent, on March 30, to HUD’s Senate funders, and it also called for a substantial increase in HAG funding. The Administration’s budget proposal would cut funding for HAG by $4 million.
Notwithstanding the welcomed new ESG money to address the serious concerns arising from COVID-19, pursuant to the new CARES Act law, providers of services to folks experiencing homelessness will continue to need additional resources in FY21 to meet increasing demands for assistance. Even after COVID-19 subsides, housing will become even more expensive, rents will continue to increase, and evictions will still be soaring. Even the best homelessness programs, battle-tested though they will be by COVID-19, will still need help dealing with such formidable challenges in FY21.
It appears as if mark ups of the bill have been postponed until after the next stimulus package has been addressed, one way or another.
Housing First: The Alliance supports efforts by Congressional lawmakers to re-affirm Housing First in the CoC Notice of Funding Availability (NoFA) process. House and Senate funders for HUD included language in their FY20 bill which negated anti-Housing First provisions in the 2019 NoFA. It is expected that the 2020 NoFA will include anti-Housing First provisions, thus necessitating additional legislative intervention in the FY2021 funding bill. The Moore-Katko letter mentioned earlier also included very strong language in support of Housing First:
“For over a decade, federal policy has emphasized the effectiveness of Housing First, an evidence-based, system-wide approach to homelessness. Housing First is a homeless assistance strategy that prioritizes access to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, absence of a criminal record, treatment, or service participation requirements. Moreover, Housing First combines housing assistance with supportive housing services for individuals and families, including medical and mental health support services, employment or job training services, and financial assistance related services (e.g., help with credit history, arrears, and legal issues).
“A core principle of Housing First is respect of individuals’ rights to self-determination. While participation in services is encouraged, it is not a condition of housing. Supportive services are offered to maximize housing stability and prevent returns to homelessness. The Housing First approach promotes flexible and responsive assistance that is targeted to a household’s specific housing and service needs.”
The Merkley letter mentioned earlier included similar language in support of Housing First:
“Across the nation, many providers of services to those experiencing homelessness in every Continuum of Care are using the Housing First approach to get their clients off the streets and into housing so they can address their problems effectively. Housing First promotes better outcomes for those experiencing homelessness, including improved medical and behavioral health and lower rates of substance abuse, as well as reducing costs to taxpayers related to emergency health care, police, and incarceration services – improving outcomes for clients and reducing costs for taxpayers. The Housing First approach has enjoyed strong, bipartisan support since its adoption by the George W. Bush Administration at the request of Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike. The Housing First principles also animate the HUD-VASH and Supportive Services for Veterans Families programs that have achieved significant reductions in veteran homelessness.”
Major Reforms to Homelessness and Housing Programs: Representatives and Senators have introduced many fine bills that would provide systemic improvements to the nation’s homelessness and housing programs. However, two bills, both of them introduced by House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) and marked up favorably by her committee, should be singled out:
- The Ending Homelessness Act (H.R. 1856) provides a comprehensive plan to ensure that every person experiencing homelessness in America has a place to call home. The bill would appropriate $13.3 billion in mandatory emergency relief funding over 5 years to several critical federal housing programs and initiatives, providing the resources that these programs need to effectively address the homelessness crisis in America. If enacted, this bill is estimated to fund the creation of 410,000 new units of housing for people experiencing homelessness.
- The Housing is Infrastructure Act (H.R. 5187) would make the following investments into the nation’s housing infrastructure: $70 billion to fully address the public housing capital backlog; $1 billion to fully fund the backlog of capital needs for the Section 515 and 514 rural housing stock; $5 billion for the Housing Trust Fund to support the creation of hundreds of thousands of new units of housing that would be affordable to the lowest income households; $100 million to help low income elderly households in rural areas age in place; $1 billion for the Native American Housing Block Grant Program to address substandard housing conditions on tribal lands; $10 billion for a Community Development Block Grant set-aside to incentivize states and cities to eliminate impact fees and responsibly streamline the process for development of affordable housing; and $5 billion for the HOME Investment Partnership Program to fund affordable housing activities such as building, buying, and rehabilitating affordable homes for low-income people; $2.5 billion for the Supporting Housing for Elderly (Section 202 Program); $2.5 billion for Supportive Housing for persons with disabilities (811 Program); and $2.5 billion to the Capital Magnet Fund for competitive grants to Community Development Financial Institutions to finance affordable housing and community revitalization efforts.
It remains to be seen if the legislation will be moved to the floor for consideration by the entire House. Both bills have been introduced in the Senate as S. 2613 and S. 2951, respectively, but the Banking Committee has not formally considered the legislation.
Opportunity Starts at Home Bills for Flexible Funding and Housing Vouchers: NAEH is a proud member of Opportunity Starts at Home (OSAH), a long-term campaign to meet the rental housing needs of the nation’s low-income people. OSAH has developed two important bills which the Alliance strongly supports:
- The Eviction Crisis Act (S. 3030), introduced with bipartisan support, would, among other things, establish a dedicated federal funding stream for homelessness prevention which would be used for the provision of nominal sums of financial assistance to low-income households experiencing housing instability or in danger of eviction.
- The Family Stability and Opportunity Vouchers Act (S. 3083), also introduced with bipartisan support, would establish 500,000 new Housing Choice Vouchers over the next five years for families that are experiencing homelessness or housing instability, or wish to live in areas with quality schools and other opportunities for healthy development.
Homelessness, Housing, and Health Care: NAEH endorses three bills which promote better health care:
- The Fighting Homelessness with Services and Housing Act (S. 923, H.R. 1978) would provide health care services for the those experiencing homelessness through the establishment of a grant program in the Health Resources Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The bill has not yet been taken up by the committees of jurisdiction.
- The Services for Ending Long-Term Homelessness Act (H.R. 3272) would provide those experiencing chronic homelessness with permanent supportive housing as well as health care through the establishment of a grant program in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of HHS. The bill has not yet been taken up by the committee of jurisdiction.
- The Social Determinants Accelerator Act (H.R. 4004, S. 2986) would establish grants for states to take into account factors that contribute to our health, i.e., social determinants of health, including housing, education, income, neighborhood, personal health practices, genetic endowment, physical environment, etc., in the development and implementation of health care policy, which should lead to better and less expensive health care. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill were introduced with bipartisan support; however, no action has been taken by the committees of jurisdiction.
Equal Access to Shelters: The Alliance supports legislation (H.R. 3018, S. 2007) that would forbid the replacement of the Equal Access Rule, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in HUD programs, with the Administration’s draft alternative. That draft alternative would allow shelter programs to consider “privacy, safety, practical concerns, and religious beliefs” in making determinations of access on the basis of gender identity. The House bill was approved by the Financial Services Committee by a partisan vote, and it could be sent to the floor later this year. The Senate bill has not been taken up by the Banking Committee.
Veteran Homelessness Programs: The Alliance supports FY2021 funding increases for the veteran homelessness programs—GPD, HUD-VASH (including Tribal HUD-VASH), and particularly SSVF, which needs new funding to pay for its promising Shallow Subsidy initiative and fulfill new requirements to serve women veterans. With respect to HUD-VASH, Congress should work with VA to induce medical centers to staff up their caseworkers; provide additional funding for recruitment and retention of caseworkers; and allow for outsourcing of casework, particularly housing navigation.
The Alliance strongly supports legislation to expand eligibility for HUD-VASH benefits to veterans subjected to other-than-honorable (OTH) discharges. Veterans discharged OTH are already eligible for the other two veteran homelessness programs. The House bill (H.R. 2398) was passed with minimal opposition, while the Senate bill (S. 2061), introduced with bipartisan support, awaits action by the Banking Committee.
Youth Homelessness Programs: The Alliance endorses the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act (H.R. 4300, S. 2803), which would offer three-year Family Unification Program vouchers to all young people who are between the ages of 18 and 24 leaving foster care and at risk of homelessness—with the opportunity to extend those vouchers by two years (for a total of five years) by voluntarily participating in self-sufficiency activities. The House bill passed without opposition. The Senate bill was favorably assessed by Republicans and Democrats alike at a Banking Committee hearing. The Alliance also endorses a reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, provided the legislation includes a nondiscrimination provision which reflects the policies currently set in program regulations.
Tribal Homelessness: The Alliance supports legislation that would allow Indian Tribes and tribally designated housing entities to apply for, receive, and administer grants and subgrants under HUD’s CoC program. The House bill (H.R. 4029) was passed without opposition, but the Banking Committee has yet to take action on the bipartisan Senate bill (S. 2282).
Helping Ex-Offenders Avoid Homelessness: The Alliance supports a pair of bills to make it easier for the justice-involved to escape homelessness.
- Fair Chance at Housing Act (H.R. 3685 and S. 2076) would reform the screening and eviction policies for federal housing assistance in order to provide fair access to federally-subsidized housing for ex-offenders. The bills have not yet been considered by the committees of jurisdiction.
- Humane Correctional Act (H.R. 4141 and S. 2305) would repeal the so-called Medicaid Inmate Exclusion, which strips health coverage from Medicaid enrollees who are involved in the criminal justice system, decreasing access to care and make it more likely they will be homeless upon reentry. The bills have not yet been considered by the committees of jurisdiction.
Re-defining “Homelessness”: HUD’s programs are insufficiently resourced to care for the almost 600,000 people defined as experiencing homelessness, either living on the streets or in shelters. Consequently, the Alliance must oppose legislation that would change the definition of “homelessness” to include the 4.4 million unstably-housed Americans, i.e., those living doubled-up with friends and families, thus making them eligible for HUD’s homelessness programs. People living doubled-up deserve real help—particularly more vouchers and public housing. It is wrong to pit low-income, doubled up families against America’s poorest families, those experiencing homelessness, for the same limited resources, particularly in a budget which last year included $1.4 trillion in discretionary spending.
HEALS Act (H.R. 5184, S. 1624): The Alliance opposes this legislation because it would prevent HUD from rewarding effective and efficient homelessness programs, which poorly serves both people experiencing homelessness as well as taxpayers. The HEALS Act is also included in one of the leading Senate versions of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) (S. 2920). Neither the House-passed VAWA reauthorization nor the other leading Senate version of VAWA reauthorization (S. 2843) include the HEALS Act, and both measures are supported by the Alliance.
Following up with the Alliance
Please let the Alliance’s John Threlkeld [email@example.com / (202) 942-8256] know if you have any questions about legislation or educating your lawmakers.