WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled an ambitious plan that aspires to end homelessness among some of society's most vulnerable groups within the next decade.
"Opening Doors," a "Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," calls for ending child and family homelessness in 10 years while wiping out chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years.
According to the 74-page plan, "Stable housing is the foundation upon which people build their lives — absent a safe, decent, affordable place to live, it is next to impossible to achieve good health, positive educational outcomes or reach one's economic potential."
The plan is a significant breakthrough because there's never been a comprehensive federal effort to end homelessness with a timeline and measureable goals, said Nan Roman, the president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
"To me that's really important, because we know that when the Bush administration made a commitment to end chronic homelessness, it really made a huge difference," she said. "It changed how resources were allocated. It caused better coordination, and the result has been that the chronic numbers have gone down. Now they're taking that same approach and they're expanding it to the other homeless populations. I think that's significant."
Other advocates also lauded the plan's goals, but they questioned the lack of details about how some of the proposals would be paid for.
"The big question is whether preventing children and families in the U.S. from becoming homeless is important enough for Congress" to increase homeless-program funding, "and I don't think they'll do that without enough pressure and leadership from the White House," said Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. "In order to achieve these goals, the funding has to be there, and that means the administration has to really be firm and advocate."
"Opening Doors" comes a week after a government report showed that nearly 1.6 million people, including more than 170,000 U.S. families, spent time in homeless shelters last year as the recession, mounting foreclosures and record unemployment sent people scrambling for shelter.
The number of families in homeless shelters jumped 7 percent by nearly 11,000 families from 2008 to 2009. Overall, family homelessness was up 30 percent in 2009 from 2007.
The economic stimulus bill has helped 357,000 people by moving some from homeless shelters into their own apartments and by providing rent payments to prevent others from becoming homeless. Many agencies that distribute the money already have exhausted or committed their two- and three-year allocations, however, and some are turning away needy people as their funding dwindles.
With most homeless shelters at capacity, many homeless families are moving in, or "doubling up," with friends and relatives in overcrowded households.
Against this backdrop, federal legislation that President Barack Obama signed in May 2009 required the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to develop "Opening Doors" as the first national plan to combat homelessness.
While it's more a road map for direction than a detailed blueprint for immediate action, "Opening Doors" outlines the government's commitment to make homelessness a priority for all federal agencies and to partner with states, localities, private organizations and other stakeholders to make existing homeless programs more effective and efficient by using strategies that already have proved to be successful, Most notable among these efforts is combining housing and supportive services for the chronically homeless.
Nationally, there are 234 community plans to end homelessness and 84 percent of them are 10-year plans, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Last year, the alliance identified four factors as crucial for plan success: putting a person or organization in charge of its implementation, setting specific numeric goals, setting a timeline for completion and identifying a funding source. In a survey of the first 90 communities to establish 10-year plans, however, the alliance found that only 8 percent of those plans had dedicated funding sources and only 18 percent had specific numeric goals. Only 41 percent set timelines for implementation and 35 percent had people or groups in charge of achieving the plans.
A demonstration project that the Obama administration requested in its 2011 federal budget proposal offers a glimpse into the kind of multi-agency programming that "Opening Doors" envisions.
The Obama proposal would direct 4,000 Section 8 housing vouchers to homeless people who need treatment from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration along with health care, child care and employment services from Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
This multi-layered assistance is known as permanent supportive housing. It's primarily for chronically homeless people who have disabilities, are tough to employ and are prone to long, frequent bouts of homelessness. The Obama proposal is modeled after similar efforts during the George W. Bush administration, which set a goal in 2002 to end chronic homelessness in 10 years.
Under the Bush initiative, the nation's chronic homeless population fell to 111,000 in 2009 from nearly 156,000 in 2006, after 42,000 permanent supportive housing slots were added. In deference to the Bush efforts, "Opening Doors" proposes to "finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in five years."
"Opening Doors" will focus resources on housing youths who age out of the foster care program at 18 and often end up homeless within a few months. Similar attention will be paid to homeless veterans, who accounted for 13 percent of the people who were in shelters last year.
The new plan also calls for government and private sources to provide more rent subsidies for individuals and families who are at risk of becoming homeless. The subsidies, similar to the Section 8 housing program, would allow recipients to pay a maximum of 30 percent of their income for housing.
Funding rental vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 program has proved a difficult battle in Congress. The House of Representatives hasn't yet begun floor debate on the Section 8 Voucher Reform Act, which passed the House Financial Services Committee last July. The bill would provide subsidies for 150,000 more low-income families, but housing advocates are pushing for another 2 million vouchers over the next 10 years; that would double the current amount.
The report also calls for replenishing the nation's dwindling supply of affordable rental housing by funding the National Housing Trust Fund, which was created in 2008 as a permanent federal funding source to help construct, renovate and preserve 1.5 million units of rental housing for low-income families over 10 years.
The fund was slated to provide up to $1 billion a year for states and local governments to award grants to developers and organizations that agree to build or rehabilitate low-income housing, but Congress hasn't funded the measure because of the economic downturn.
From 2001 to 2007, the stock of affordable rental units fell by 6.3 percent, or 1.2 million units, while the supply of high-rent units increased 94.3 percent. For every new affordable-housing unit that's constructed, two are demolished, abandoned or converted to condominiums or expensive rentals, according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
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