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How Not to Sweep Those Without Housing During a Pandemic: Pittsburgh

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

By Eva Lyons, NCH Intern Spring 2022

Similar to many other cities during the pandemic, Pittsburgh saw a large increase in the number who fled the shelters and could not find other housing so began living outside. Much of this trend is out of the cities hand, except for how they choose to react to this crisis or minimize it. Pittsburgh is the largest city within Allegheny County. Allegheny County prioritized those without housing to keep them safe during the pandemic. Other cities such as Cleveland, OH, and Santa Fe, NM, went down the same path, but most other cities adopted a law enforcement strategy to homelessness. Because unhoused individuals have many chronic health conditions they are at higher risks of getting COVID-19. There are far fewer places to isolate, which has caused an increasing number of people living on the streets in freezing temperatures.

Allegheny County took a more hands on approach and worked to keep everyone safe. They utilized every federal resource they could find, assembled unprecedented amounts of funding to get people inside. They adopted a prevention strategy, and tried connecting people to available services. In looking at models from the pandemic, we believe that Pittsburgh can serve as a template for other government entities to model in response to a health crisis as well as a better strategy for dealing with the emergency of homelessness.

Abigail Horn, Deputy Director of the Office of Community Services for Allegheny County, and Andy Halfhill, Administrator for Homeless Services for Allegheny County shared that the Health Department played an important and positive role in protecting their homeless population. The Health Department met regularly with homeless providers to determine best practices. They also sent staff to check out the shelters and determine next best steps following any health checks. Ms. Horn shared that they were very hands-on and active within the community.

Allegheny County tried to take advantage of every single resource they had available to help their homeless population during these troubling times of the pandemic. They worked to be very nimble and to meet any needs that came along. One of Allegheny County’s main successes was their focus on getting the Safe Haven Hotel running and available for isolation and quarantine spaces. Families and youth could utilize these spaces which also included single adults. This effort helped to deconcentrate people from congregate single shelters. Part of these spaces were designated to move people who were deemed “higher risk individuals” into a safer space. They also were able to utilize rooms in the winter for winter shelter overflow. These efforts started within the first year of the pandemic, showing where the county’s priorities rightfully laid.

Another great success from the county involves how they used the funding and resources they had hosted community discussions to figure out the priorities and then used the dollars coming in from the federal government to prioritize the needs. They decided to focus on their most vulnerable community members with chronic health conditions who had no where else to stay. They used their funding to provide hygiene centers and toilets to larger encampments. Furthermore, the county pushed to help get everyone vaccinated and tested. They sent medical professional out to the streets, and they offered a space to isolate and quarantine at the Safe Haven Hotel.

Outreach in Pittsburgh

Rather than clearing encampments and displacing individuals, they brought resources to those sleeping rough in Pittsburgh. County officials passed along essential resources and compassion that they hoped would build trust to bring people inside. Historically, Pittsburgh has been really respectful, working with outreach teams and educating their police on the best ways to interact with the diverse homeless population. Police are paired with street outreach who get to take the lead with issues or concerns facing homeless individuals. Furthermore, police defer to street outreach teams to help with clean up when residents request and to help pick up trash. This helps ensure that people’s belongings are not being thrown out.

The county’s funding was also used to help families with the technology barriers for online schooling. They provided additional resources, such as cellphones, laptops, and hotspot access to those in need. These resources also helped families and individuals access the internet and online services to contact doctors and other essential providers. Additionally, IPads were provided to the Safe Haven Hotel to help the people living there temporarily. Allegheny County has long- term efforts in place to serve their homeless sector, as this crisis was here before the pandemic and will be here afterwards until something major is done.

They keep their street outreach teams active throughout the year doing health checks and connecting people to housing and hygiene services. These outreach teams play a huge role in the county. They helped connect unhoused individuals to the Safe Haven Hotel as needed. Allegheny County has worked to get the emergency resources they were given on the streets as quickly as possible. During the pandemic, they worked to show that they were using the federal recovery dollars in a strategic and meaningful purpose.

Both state and national entities came through strongly to support the county’s efforts, enabling them to focus on supportive services that saved people’ lives. This includes an extremely robust eviction prevention program. This program kept the surge in homelessness that was seen across the nation to a minimum in Allegheny County. This program was essential because it provided more ways to keep people in their affordable housing and prevent them from joining the homeless population.

Ms. Horn shared that it was not the amount of funding that needs to increase if local communities are prioritizing their funding in a similar way to Allegheny County; instead, she shared what would help the most would be for government at all levels to provide more affordable housing. Ms. Horn shared, “It is hard for people to successfully leave the system because they cannot find safe, stable, and affordable housing when they leave, and I know that is the same across the nation.”

There are currently a lot of programs for veterans, youth, and families. This covers many of the subpopulations of homeless people, however, there are huge groups that fall through the cracks. Ms. Horn and Mr. Halfhill shared that the sub-population increasing the greatest are those with long term stays without housing and those with behavioral health issues. They would like to focus next on creating better connections between homeless individuals and behavioral health services. Allegheny County used the resources at their disposal to help keep their homeless population safe before, during, and after the pandemic. The models in Pittsburgh/Allegheny County can work in other cities to keep our homeless neighbors safe and while the appropriate housing is developed to lower the numbers.

What is the Faircloth Amendment?

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

The U.S. Government has been providing affordable, permanent housing for over 1.8 million families through public housing. Public housing serves a critical role in the nation’s rental market, providing stable, affordable homes for households with low incomes. The families who live in public housing include some of the nation’s most disadvantaged citizens, including older adults, people with disabilities, and working families with young children. 

Not to be confused with other housing subsidy programs, public housing is housing stock that is owned by HUD (U.S. Government) and administered by local Public Housing Authorities (PHAs). Public housing comes in all sizes and types, from scattered single-family houses to high rise apartments for elderly families. 

In 1998, through the Faircloth Amendment, the U.S. Government created an artificial barrier by limiting the number of public housing units that federal authorities could build and has resulted in many people being left without a home. This amendment prevents any net increase in public housing stock from the number of units as of October 1, 1999. Simply put, the Faircloth Amendment sets a cap on the number of units any public housing authority (PHA) could own and operate, effectively halting new construction of public housing. This prevents policymakers from using a vital tool, building more permanent affordable housing, to address our nation’s growing housing and homelessness crisis.

In the two decades since the Faircloth Amendment passed, rent costs have skyrocketed while average incomes have not. The median inflation-adjusted rent has increased 13.0 percent since 2001, while the median inflation-adjusted renter’s income has only increased 0.5 percent during that same period. This obstacle in creating more affordable housing that the amendment created, is happening while there is a $70 billion backlog in funding for maintenance and repairs to existing public housing stock.

Repeal the Faircloth Amendment Act

There are many pieces of legislation that would Repeal the Faircloth Amendment, overturning the 1998 law so there would no longer be a federal limit on creation of new public housing. These are bills currently introduced in Congress that would repeal Faircloth: H.R. 659, H.R. 7191, H.R. 5385, H.R. 2664, H.R. 4497, S. 1218, S. 2234.

Repealing the Faircloth Amendment would not only eliminate a physical ban, but also:

  • Repealing the Faircloth Amendment would not only eliminate a physical ban that has barred access to affordable housing for more than twenty years, but it would also allow for communities, tenants and PHAs to reimagine how building more public housing with permanent affordability could create opportunities for seniors to rest and families to thrive. 
  • Intentionally designing and planning to have public housing integrated in the community where residents thrive in their neighborhoods, where they have access to opportunity, where there’s jobs, resources and public parks can be accomplished, but first Faircloth must be repealed.
  • While few funds are currently dedicated toward new public housing construction, lifting the prohibition from the Faircloth Amendment lays the groundwork for a net increase in the supply of public housing, a crucial step in increased aggregate housing supply.
  • It is not an either fully fund current public housing OR repeal the Faircloth Amendment to create new public housing, it is an AND. Repeal the Faircloth Amendment to remove the barrier to create new public housing AND fully fund PHAs to properly maintain safe, decent, accessible, and affordable housing units that they currently hold.

Congress should uncuff itself from the restraints that the Faircloth Amendment has put on this country’s ability to create affordable housing. Public housing is critical to addressing the nation’s poverty crisis. As a long-term asset, public housing provides decent housing to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, connects low-income workers to economic opportunities, and spurs regional job creation and economic growth.

State of the Union’s Housing Crisis

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

Let’s Talk About Homelessness in the State of the Union 

By Brian Davis

The problem of homelessness was once a prominent part of every Presidential campaign from Nixon, Carter to Reagan each released plans to house every American. It should be understood that Reagan’s plan (the last time the President was pushed to address homelessness) was rather specious in having every church and synagogue adopt “10 welfare families” until the inflation crisis was over.  There were dramatic expansions of federal housing support from the 1960s to the mid 1980s that really made an impact. In 1984, Jesse Carpenter froze to death on a bench very near the federal agency in charge of housing and everything changed.  The Homeless Persons Survival Act was written in the offices of the National Coalition for the Homeless and was passed in 1986 and began a huge escalation in federal dollars toward the emergency needs of those on the streets. 

This resulted in a huge infusion of dollars to keep people from freezing to death, and a steady decline in the construction and repair of affordable housing.  The problem of homelessness no longer was an emergency that politicians set their hair on fire to address.  It became a routine to check people in every night, process their paperwork and have them wait in a bunk bed for a month, a year, a decade for the next available unit of affordable housing. Then it became to norm to have children skipping school because they lost their housing so we set up a program for homeless children. Every city started seeing people living in their cars, and that became a problem to overcome in the short term. Talented artists, teachers, athletes lined up for shelter and our community accepted that reality as well.  Tents popped up and instead of creating housing opportunities, cities answered with tickets and arrests.  The issue also fell off the Presidential docket except for some occasional volunteering at Thanksgiving or MLK Day.  Homelessness became routine; shelter became the response and housing grew increasingly out of reach.  

The United States is at the tail end of a crisis that caused thousands of deaths in the homeless community and did not discriminate based on your housing status or your income.  We need to come together to repair the social safety net and commit to never again keeping a segment of the population in an extended state of emergency.  The human body can only deal with so much stress; so much sleep deprivation; and only so much trauma. We have learned that stuffing as many people as possible into a gymnasium is not healthy and we know that periods of homelessness reduce the life expectancy of a segment of the population.  While the growth of shelter in the late 20th Century has saved the life of hundreds of thousands of people, it has also extended the time the average person spends without stability by months if not years.  

We need the President and Congressional leaders to regularly talk about homelessness again.  We need to get back to a time when the federal government takes the lead in providing a plan to house everyone residing in the United States.  We need to re-prioritize housing as a key piece of infrastructure in every community.  Here are some things the President could say during the State of the Union address to get back to a time when we prioritized housing for voters:

  • As I campaigned on, I want to see homelessness end in the United States. The first step down payment on that promise is universal access to a housing voucher coupled with a national prohibition on landlords not accepting the federal assistance program.  If you can’t afford housing, the federal government will provide a hand up to those struggling. 
  • With the Omicron variant on the rise in the United States, we need to recommit to safety protocols for those without safe, secure housing that offers privacy.  No city or local government should be engaged in any activities that disrupt those who are forced to live outside unless it is offering them a housing unit. Congregate shelters are not a safe alternative at this time until we have near universal vaccination rates. 
  • As we come out of the pandemic, dust ourselves off and put our minds to fixing all the holes left from this national emergency, one of the glaring issues is that the American system for meeting the emergency housing needs of the community does not work during a health emergency.  We need to completely re-think shelter in the United States and focus on healthy alternatives to meet the needs of those with long term chronic health conditions including behavioral health issues. 
  • Why does the federal government have multiple definitions for the word “homeless”?  This makes no sense and can be confusing the mom attempting to enroll her child in school and has to interact with multiple federal agencies all with a different definition of homelessness.  We need to adopt the Department of Education definition as the standard for all federal, state and local jurisdictions.  This is the easiest definition to understand and will make it a lot easier to provide services. 
  • The Housing First model is a proven success, and it needs to be adopted for every single individual seeking help with their lack of a safe place to sleep.  We should prioritize preventing homelessness with legal representation, rental assistance and mediation services.  If those fail, then how do we get the family back into housing within 24 hours of their seeking help?  This should be the standard and every community needs to construct systems to engage every level of government to make this a reality.  
  • The United States needs to value the work of every single citizen who puts in 40 hours of work so that they can afford at least a one bedroom apartment in every single community.  If a business cannot pay a living wage, then the government should provide a monthly tax credit to get the individual up to a living wage for their household.  The businesses not able to pay living wages should be asked to pay a higher tax rate to subsidize these lower wage workers.  
  • Healthcare should not be tied to a job because that disproportionately leaves out those in the service sector and those who change jobs frequently.  As I campaigned on, I want to expand Medicaid to include those who cannot find healthcare in the market.  We may not be able to move toward universal health care, but we should be taking steps toward that goal every year.  Coming out of a pandemic is the perfect time to move toward an expanded Medicaid program. 
  • If you cannot work because you are disabled in the United States that should not mean that you will live in poverty for the rest of your life.  We need to reform the disability assistance to encourage those who can contribute in a meaningful way have that opportunity, and not face penalty for receiving some limited income.  We also need to raise the standard of living of everyone on full disability so that their income translates into a living wage in the community in which they reside. 
  • Local jurisdictions are receiving millions of dollars from the federal government to serve those without housing and those with extremely low incomes, and they are turning around and harassing, arresting and threatening those very same people that the federal government is showering them with funding to serve.  This is hypocritical to take the assistance and then punish those individuals the city has pledged to help.  It stops now! If you want federal funds to feed, educate, house, and provide health care for, each city, county or local jurisdiction will have to certify that they are not using law enforcement as social workers to deal with behavioral health issues, homelessness, or poverty related complications.  

While this is broader than strictly a homeless issue, we would be negligent if we did not mention that you need to tell us how you are going to re-institute voter protections especially for those who move frequently because of poverty issues.  This is the most important issue to restore free and fair elections and remove all barriers to get every citizen to vote. We urge the President to address the path to passing the two voter protection laws that the House of Representatives already passed. 

The collapse of the Build Back Better shows that Congress is hopelessly broken and needs significant reform.  We need to tear down the current model for our democracy back to the studs and start over so that we can work together on a future national crisis and not have to lose 600,000 Americans unnecessarily.  We need to restore representative democratic principles to force more universal participation in governance.  We need to remove propaganda from tipping our governmental leaders to more authoritarian tendencies, and we need to protect a free and fair independent media.  National crisis such as the pandemic can destabilize a government and in the blink of an eye a “savior” can come to power and crush the opposition.   

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