National Homelessness Law Center Comment on US Interagency Council on

Homelessness Federal Strategic Plan

November 30, 2021

The National Homelessness Law Center appreciates this opportunity to provide public comment on the next Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness. The Law Center further appreciates that several of the top priorities listed below have already been addressed in the recent statement of USICH’s Core Values as We Create a Federal Strategic Plan.

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What should the federal government’s top priorities be?

  • The Federal Government Must Make Clear that Housing Justice is Racial Justice   
  • The Federal Government Must Approach Ending Homelessness From A Comprehensive Perspective that Housing Is A Human Right
  • The Federal Government Must Address the Prevalence of Criminalization of Homelessness and Disincentivize Communities From Criminalizing Homelessness
  • The Federal Government Must Incorporate Substantive Policy Changes In Its Plan to End Youth Homelessness
  • The Federal Government Must Prioritize the Use of Vacant and Surplus Property for the Provision of Housing and Services to People Experiencing Homelessness
  • The Federal Government Must Focus on Preventing Housing Loss Before it Happens By Incentivizing Policy Changes That Stabilize Rents, Curb Evictions, and Provide Low-Income Tenants Access to Justice

What are the biggest barriers in your community?The Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Homelessness and Poverty and Hinders Attempts to End Homelessness

  • The Supply of Affordable Housing is Too Low to Meet Demand, and Housing Remains Unaffordable for Most People

How can the federal government more effectively center racial equity and support equitable access and outcomes at the local level?

  • The Federal Strategic Plan Must Prioritize the Full Funding of HUD’s Affordable Housing Programs 
  • USICH Must Address Continued Racial Segregation in Public and Affordable Housing and Housing Programs
  • The New Federal Strategic Plan Should Move Away from Colorblind Guidance and Instead Recognize How Anti-Black Racism Perpetuates Homelessness

What lessons have you learned during the COVID pandemic about how housing, health, and supportive services systems can best respond?

When the federal government first began issuing guidance to the public about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, its primary suggestion to people was to “stay home.” It was immediately and abundantly clear that in attempting to manage the pandemic, the federal government and its state and local counterparts omitted entirely any consideration of individuals experiencing homelessness. That omission has resulted in homeless individuals being more likely to be infected by COVID-19, more likely to be hospitalized when they contract COVID-19, more likely to require critical care once hospitalized, and more likely to die from COVID-19 (How to Make a Human Right (homelesslaw.org)).

COVID-19 brought to light many existing shortcomings of homelessness services, including the facts that even sheltered individuals are often congregated into small spaces, sanitation facilities and hygiene materials are too often scarce, access to health care is extremely limited, and service and shelter providers are given broad discretion to turn people away. At all times but particularly during times of crisis, people should not be forcibly moved or criminalized for where they are sleeping or sitting. They should not be forced into congregate shelter or separated from their belongings or companions. States and localities should be making more concerted efforts to use surplus government property to house people experiencing homelessness and provide them with necessary services. For those who are housed but at risk of homelessness, all levels of government should provide guidance and funds that allow for the halting of evictions, foreclosures, and terminations of utility services.

Additionally, in issuing cash payments to all Americans, the federal government failed to adequately consider how funds would be distributed to people without a permanent address or how to provide funds to people without bank accounts. Though federal, state, and local governments also worked to create programs to help renters and small landlords, many of these programs did not reach their full potential because they either explicitly or implicitly excluded people experiencing homelessness and people in temporary or transitional housing. And, despite the fact that 81% of voters supported measures for the government to purchase to take control of unoccupied buildings to provide temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness during the height of the pandemic (fighting-the-coronavirus-and-protecting-the-unhoused.pdf (filesforprogress.org)), many jurisdictions failed to do this and instead left hotels and other commercial properties entirely vacant while people experiencing homelessness remained unhoused.

COVID-19 also made clear the imperative to end the criminalization of homelessness, as encampment sweeps continued throughout the country and law enforcement continued to issue citations and make arrests based on laws that prohibit sleeping outside or in vehicles.

Policies and remedies handed down in response to COVID-19 do not mark the first time that individuals experiencing homelessness have been egregiously left out of the conversation, but the results of this exclusion should serve as a reminder and a catalyst to center unhoused people in future social, economic, and public health related policies, both pertaining to and beyond COVID-19. People experiencing homelessness deserve access to safety, privacy, and dignity and this means that governmental entities need to do a better job of providing adequate shelter options, and access to health care and sanitation. State and local governments should be meaningfully incentivized to convert vacant and surplus properties into affordable or no-cost housing options for vulnerable populations, and disincentivized from enacting and enforcing laws that criminalize homelessness. Any future measures that attempt to protect renters and homeowners or revitalize the economy must consider how to effectively deliver those resources to people experiencing homelessness by actually centering those communities to assess their needs and formulate best practices.

Is there anything else you wish to add?

The most effective way to end homelessness is to increase the supply and accessibility of affordable housing. In addition to the suggestions that we have laid out in the preceding sections, it is critical that USICH’s new Strategic Plan address barriers to construction of affordable housing in neighborhoods and communities across the country. Patterns of exclusionary zoning (Microsoft Word – Testimony of Sheryll Cashin 10-13.docx (house.gov)) and widespread public opposition to the development of affordable housing, fueled by racial discrimination and myths about the socioeconomic consequences of affordable housing (Does affordable housing negatively impact nearby property values? – Community and Economic Development in North Carolina and Beyond (unc.edu)), have proven to be contentious obstacles in efforts to increase the supply of affordable housing.

USICH has a clear role to play in collecting data about the true effects of affordable housing on communities, and educating the public to ensure that “NIMBYism” does not continue to thwart attempts to provide more and better affordable housing to unhoused Americans, or to expand homelessness services. USICH should elevate the HUD “NIMBY Decision Tree” (Nimby Assessment – HUD Exchange) resource to help developers and housing advocates predict and respond to NIMBYism in their communities, and should incentivize municipalities and other agencies to develop similar localized tools. Additionally, USICH’s new Strategic Plan should share information and resources that aid in dispelling pervasive myths about affordable housing, and encourage governmental bodies on all levels to take stock of, and do away with, exclusionary zoning ordinances and other land use restrictions that codify NIMBYism.

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