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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.

Letter sent to NYC Mayor Eric Adams: Do Not Criminalize Homeless New Yorkers for finding Refuge in the Subway

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

Dear Mayor Adams:

The National Coalition for the Homeless is alarmed by the subway safety plan released by your administration on February 18, 2022, and are concerned that this will only escalate the issues facing those without stable housing in New York City.  Our concern is this “plan” was tried by the previous administration in New York City and has been tried by other mayors on a smaller scale in many other cities and every time it has failed because affordable housing is never attached to these plans.  NCH and every homeless organization mourns the loss of life in the subways and the escalating amount of violence, but it is misguided to blame these issues on the unhoused.  After 40 years if we have learned one thing it is that use of law enforcement to deal with a social service/housing issues will fail and will only extend the stay on the streets for many caught up in these sweeps.

While we understand that the safety of every rider of the New York subway system (including those without housing) is paramount, our concern is that this plan will only exacerbate the violence.  It also diverts law enforcement resources from solving real crimes to being reduced to crossing guards or curfew violation security officers.  We have seen a number of videos over the last two weeks of encounters between law enforcement and those without housing and it seems as though these encounters are only agitating those who utilize the subway for shelter.  The law enforcement or transit official asks the unhoused individual to move their stuff out of the subway, which typically involves three or four trips down the escalator, and each time the person is more and more frustrated.  We are worried that this subway plan is just going to lead to more and more volatile interactions and eventually people backed into a corner lash out.

What is missing from this plan is where do these individuals go if they are not in the subway?  And based on the videos, shelters are not an option to many of these individuals utilizing the subway.  They clearly describe unsafe, unsupervised and overcrowded conditions that make the streets a more attractive alternative.  We had written to City of New York officials in 2021 about our concern over the shelter conditions and lack of oversight.  Unless you find safe spaces for those you are removing they will continue to utilize the subway, doorways, and bridges to stay alive.  There are so many failed systems that led to people sleeping in the subway and you are entirely focused on the victim of these system failures instead of attacking the causes. 

The National Coalition for the Homeless has many ideas for how local communities can better address the crisis within the behavioral health system and the inability for the market to meet the housing needs of the service based economy we have created, but none of our proposals involve the use of law enforcement to be transformed into social workers. The individuals that you roust from the subways will still use the public transit system, but will be even more suspicious of law enforcement, transit officials, and outreach teams.  Housing First, safe havens, hotel rooms, low barrier facilities all work and are proven to keep people from living on the streets.  We understand the scale of the problem in New York City, but neglecting the population or utilizing police to shuffle people around the city is not going to encourage people to go inside in any capacity. 

The behavioral health system that keeps individuals on a 24 hour hold and then sends them back to the streets; the housing system that takes years to process paperwork and complete inspections, the inability for doctors to prescribe housing as part of the treatment for their patient’s recovery plan; the pharmaceutical industry getting individuals hooked on opioid and keeping the price of other life sustaining medicine too high for many in our society; the vacant and abandoned housing sitting idle while so many sleep outside, and we could go on for 8 pages to describe all the other holes in the social safety net.  But the bottom line is that there is nowhere for these individuals to go and therefore they seek safety in the subways. Until you answer the question where do all these people go, you are just constructing a massive game of hide and seek as part of this security theater for the media. 

Please, for the safety of those who are struggling with their housing and the passengers of the New York transit system, we urge reconsideration of your plan with the publication of a new plan that answers the basic question: where do all these individuals go to stay safe? 

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