OP-ED: HUD’S Catastrophic Shelter Cuts

The following opinion piece by George McDonald was published in City & State on Monday, May 16 in response to drastic cuts by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to shelters across the city and country:

This week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development slashed funding for homeless shelters nationwide in favor of permanent housing projects.  In New York City alone, 75% of so-called “transitional projects” will be deprived of the resources they need to operate. This devastating turn is more than simple federal overreach— it will have terrible, lasting consequences to providers of these essential services and to homeless people, themselves.

For decades, agencies like ours have depended on HUD’s supplemental funds to address a host of facility and program related expenses: from security to infrastructure; from salaries for case managers to supplies for kitchens and dormitories.

After a high profile murder in the Bronx and a rape in a midtown neighborhood, New Yorkers learned, in the hardest way possible, that shelter conditions aren’t just a concern for staffers and residents, they’re a matter of public safety.  Somehow that message hasn’t reached federal officials and they made the unilateral decision to drain local shelters of funding in the midst of the greatest homeless crisis in modern history.

But just as important than how the funds have been used are the broader policy implications.  Every homeless population is different, and localities must be empowered to direct funds where they will be most effective. HUD has robbed New York and communities across the country of that power. Instead of addressing the underpinnings of this homelessness crisis, HUD has ignored them in favor of a more politically palatable— and simplistic— picture of homelessness and urban poverty.

The agency has joined a chorus of well intentioned but misinformed advocates that the solution to homelessness is, naturally, a home.  But homelessness isn’t a disease with a single cure.  It is an outcome with complex roots and causes, especially in diverse urban populations.  To end homelessness, the stated objective of HUD’s initiatives, we must address those causes and truly serve lives in transition, not sequester them away in semi-permanent housing and hope for the best.

Immediate housing is disastrous for large segments of the homeless population, particularly those with long histories of substance abuse, those who have fallen into poverty after losing their jobs, and, most critically in New York, individuals who are released from prison. Some two thousand men a year fall into the last category according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, and are pumped into the homeless system without any of the skills they need to live independently, safely, and lawfully. Transitional programs and facilities are designed to step individuals down from the destructive culture of streets and prisons.  Without these intermediary services, recidivism and an eventual return to homelessness are all but guaranteed.

By contrast, The Doe Fund’s transitional program, Ready, Willing & Able, reduces recidivism by up to 60%, according to a 2010 study by Harvard University, and assists individuals in finding permanent housing only after they have completed vocational trainings, courses of social services, and secured employment to sustain themselves and their independence. It’s a methodical, step-by-step process and it takes a lot longer than handing someone keys to an apartment.  But it works.

Last year, the Urban Institute released a groundbreaking study called “How Much Could Policy Changes Reduce Poverty in New York City.”  The findings were startling and clear: transitional services, particularly transitional jobs, reduced poverty more than any other proposed measure, including housing vouchers, a $15 minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or even increased TANF and food stamp support.

Even if HUD chooses to ignore the data, leadership’s statements contradict their actions.  In 2013, Ann Marie Oliva, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs at HUD, wrote that removing funding for transitional housing would be, “short-sighted and does not take into account the specific needs of communities.”  Two and a half years later, HUD is bleeding programs to exactly that effect.

For large organizations like The Doe Fund, this reduction in HUD support is a difficult hit to absorb.  But for smaller agencies and service providers, HUD’s deprioritization of transitional services will be catastrophic and potentially life-threatening. Julian Castro and HUD must reverse their funding decisions immediately or live with the knowledge that, when more Americans than ever needed their help, they chose what is comfortable and simple over what is right and effective.

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About Author: The Doe Fund

Founded in 1985, The Doe Fund provides life-transforming services for the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, disenfranchised youth, and people living with AIDS.

The organization’s flagship Ready, Willing & Able program has helped tens of thousands of individuals achieve permanent self sufficiency through paid work, transitional housing, and employment training.