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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.
 
 
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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.

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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).