Activism

Homelessness Persists—Can New Attention By Powerful People Make A Dent?

Getting politicians to address homelessness is hard, but new tactics appear to be making inroads.

Photo Credit: Mikael Damkier/Shutterstock.com

Two weeks ago, not three days after being sworn in as the new Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro delivered his first public speech. Counter to the norm of the Beltway power complex, the rising young star didn’t decide to delivery the opening remarks of his tenure to the media elite, political power-players, and lobbyists that get first pickings in Washington. He spoke to more than 1,600 attendees of the 2014 National Conference on Ending Homelessness (NCEH)—advocates, bureaucrats and service providers dedicated to one of the most powerless sectors of America.

Although it may not be remarkable that a HUD Secretary makes such a priority (Secretary Donovan sent a video last year), it is nothing short of remarkable that the presence of a cabinet secretary at the conference was actually only a warmup: Secretary Castro preceded remarks by Senator Cory Booker. The celebrity senator from New Jersey left the stage only 24 hours before First Lady Michelle Obama stepped up for the keynote address.

That three of the highest profile figures in Washington all appeared at a conference on homelessness—particularly at the hectic end of a legislative session—speaks to the increasing cachet of homelessness on the national agenda. Yet, as many workshops and panelists of the conference reflected, the attention of the esteemed plenary speakers still constitutes an exception to the challenge of getting political traction on the side of the nation’s most vulnerable. The fact is, getting politicians to prioritize homelessness is hard—and doing so requires strategy, something which the advocates at NCEH showed is not in short supply.

***

There are few political reasons to address homelessness. They don’t vote, don’t donate to campaigns and aren’t a priority for the rest of the population, either. As a marginalized group, homeless people are at risk of being pushed further and further out of American consciousness. Besides already facing the practiced avoidance of the average passerby, homelessness, and attendant behavior, is increasingly criminalized in municipalities across the US. With the destruction of campaign finance laws making money even more important to political ends, lobbying firms increasingly entrenched in DC, and public program spending being cut or highly scrutinized, the perspective for government support to homelessness is bleak. It’s a cause with modest money fighting on behalf of those with nearly none.

At the same time, the big requests of homeless advocates aren’t even that big at all. Despite serving the 600,000 plus homeless in the US (plus those on the brink), the major financial requests of advocates at NCEH seem mild by comparison to other public expenditures. The main federal spending to fight homelessness, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, the “big ask” for 2015 is $2.406 billion. That’s an increase of $301 million from the previous year’s funding: about the equivalent of asking for one F22 fighter jet. The total cost of the Homeless Assistance Grants plus the VA’s programs for homeless veterans (requested at $1.641 billion) is equivalent to one-quarter of the settlement Bank of America is due to pay the Justice Department for its part in toxic mortgages. In short: the numbers seem big, but in context, the ambitious ask of homelessness advocates isn’t that grand at all.

For success, the first step is getting everything in context. The most apparent strategy for overcoming the difficult circumstances of homelessness advocacy is to insist that change is possible. That means articulating that, despite challenges, homelessness is something that can be effectively addressed. It is no surprise that the discourse at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness stressed “ending”—rather than fighting—as the verb to use (the National Alliance to End Homelessness adopted that name in 1987 after the realization that addressing symptoms was not going to be enough).

As Mandy Chapman Semple, the Special Assistant to the Mayor of Houston for Homelessness Initiatives, said “politicians like big goals” so it's best to “articulate a solution.” “No one wants to sign on to a problem,” she added. Part of this strategy seems to be capitalizing on the push to end veteran homelessness: a goal that’s smaller in scale and greater in political palatability. Phoenix became the first city to end chronic homelessness among veteran’s last year: Salt Lake City later joined them. Michelle Obama’s keynote address on veteran homelessness singled out the opportunity in veteran homelessness in convincing a wider movement. Addressing the attendees trying to end all homelessness, she noted that “[you] encounter too many folks that don’t take you seriously.” However, she added, “ending homelessness for our veterans can be a crucial first step, a proof point” for ending homelessness totally. Getting the powerful on board, it seems, first requires assuring them their power is intact.

Framing the issue effectively won’t earn advocates, but it might start opening doors—and there’s no shortage of challenges on the other side. A good deal of the advice shared on advocacy at NCEH centered on strategy for gaining access to and forging relationships with politicians. Regardless of the quirks of a particular representative, though, one thing will get you access like nothing else: wealth. Formal panel talks and casual lunch conversations alike offered repeated examples of the importance of taking along a potential donor on office visits—from “important last names” to well-known athletes.

Michael Brose, of the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, has been coming to Capitol Hill as an advocate for 21 years. “Doors fly open” when you take a wealthy supporter with you, he said.

“You hate that it’s like that, doggone it,” he added, but he’s “gonna play that game, see if I can get something done.” Otherwise, Brose and others suggested, advocates can feel like “banging their heads against the side of the Capitol.”

Reducing that frustration means tailoring both the message and the messenger to the target Congress member. In the conference session on “Making the Case on Capitol Hill,” the participants were unanimous in their support of “taking a tenant” to meetings.

“Truth is, everyone is a human being,” said Stephen Piasecki of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, so providing first-hand accounts by formerly homeless individuals is a very strong approach to soften a skeptic (even better: get them to a housing site). (This approach proved its worth the next day, as a panel of formerly homeless women presented their stories to a floored audience.)

Jim Theofelis, the executive director of the Mockingbird Society in Washington State, takes this tactic to a whole new level. His organization, which works on foster care, trains and uses foster care youth as the principal advocates on state foster care policy. The strategy has been exceedingly effective: 25 bills have been passed due, in part, to work of the Mockingbird’s youth network. In some cases, participants said, it might be more effective to send a messenger who's closer to the target’s experience, like sending a Republican staff member of the organization to meet a Republican representative. As for the message itself, there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule, but effectively combining data with personal stories is thought to capture the attention of most elected officials.

Capturing attention, sadly, isn’t always enough. Even past getting in the door, and establishing a personal connection to the cause of ending homelessness, Congress members often need convincing that there’s something else to be gained besides good will.

Besides getting potential donors on board, Sharon Rapport of the Corporation for Supportive Housing in Los Angeles discussed forging partnerships with influential groups. Since homelessness is a “very small fish in a very big pond” when it comes to getting government funds, building alliances with “non-traditional allies” like health providers and education organizers is imperative to success.

Theofelis suggests “mixing up the choir” on visits—bringing local law enforcement and business leaders along to meet with politicians. Resorting to locally influential people to pressure government, on behalf of the most powerless, is often the best bet. In the current age of cost cutting, however, even traditional allies are wary to support government outlays. As a result, the best approach may now be what Cory Booker settled on in his address: the bottom line. Proving to politicians that spending on homelessness can actually save money for the government? That’s a way to make a deal.

***

Some things the advocates espouse must be working. Despite the inherent difficulties of advocating for the homeless, in the face of government austerity and public apathy, and economic predictors to the contrary, homelessness continues to decline. According to the latest data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness from 2012 to 2013, “overall homelessness decreased by 3.7 percent and homelessness decreased among every major subpopulation—families (7 percent), chronically homeless individuals (7.3 percent), and veterans (7.3 percent).” The 100,000 Homes Campaign, to permanently house “our most vulnerable and chronically homeless neighbors,” also reached and surpassed its goal earlier this year. Those results are what it’s all about.

These successes come as a result of a set of discrete plans that largely rely on the strategies discussed above. The modern “housing first” model that rapidly houses people without precondition; the “10-year plans” adopted by mayors and other leaders to end homelessness in their communities in 10 years; the large scale plans like the 100,000 Homes Campaign—none would be possible without first establishing that ending homelessness is possible, by articulating solutions, forging allies on Capitol Hill, and working with broad-based coalitions."

Although it is disappointing that our elected leaders aren’t going to address homelessness just out of their good nature, it is hopeful that advocates have developed a slew of tactics to get allies on board. Even if it means using veteran homelessness as a hook; depending on wealthy donors and celebrities; proving “regular” society approves of your work; or capitalizing on emotions through a story of homelessness, advocates are staying true to their mission through creative solutions. If that’s what it takes to get elite like Julian Castro, Cory Booker and Michelle Obama on the homelessness agenda, it seems like a worthwhile path to pursue. Ending homelessness is possible: who will help on the way?

Stephen Lurie writes about politics, labor, education, and justice. Find him at @luriethereal.