The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 21, 2016

Five things the federal government did to help end homelessness (and three things it might not get to do)

As Congress considers the future of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), we set out to use evidence to understand how terminating the council would affect efforts to end homelessness. USICH is an independent agency tasked with coordinating the federal government’s response to homelessness, specifically the federal strategic plan outlined in 2010 in Opening Doors.

Since 2010, veteran homelessness has decreased by almost half, and chronic homelessness has decreased 22 percent. However, communities continue to face challenges achieving the nation’s goals—for example, we still don’t have a reliable count of how many youth experience homelessness. We interviewed over 50 national and local leaders working to end homelessness and asked about the successes and challenges of their work with USICH. Their message was clear: USICH has played a vital role in the nation’s progress.

Here are five things national and local leaders credited to USICH:

1. USICH brought everyone to the table. With something as complex as homelessness, it’s important that everyone understands how they can be part of the solution. USICH brought together nonprofits, advocates, and business leaders—in some cases, actors who had not collaborated before—as full partners. Cabinet leaders like Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Department of Education Secretary John King Jr. routinely attended quarterly council meetings, sending the message to federal staff that this work was a priority. 

2. USICH helped federal agencies see the big picture. A veteran experiencing homelessness may show up at a Veterans Affairs medical center looking for health care or at a local public housing office looking for housing assistance. By closely coordinating, agencies can quickly identify these veterans and connect them to the best supports in their community, no matter which agency’s door the veterans might walk through first.

3. USICH pushed leaders to follow the evidence on what works and what doesn’t. Evidence that shows someone experiencing homelessness doesn’t need to be sober or “ready” to be stable in housing has spurred a huge paradigm shift in the work to end homelessness. As the housing-first vision was promoted by federal agencies, it lent credibility to people in communities leading the hard work to change business as usual.

4. USICH put a stake in the ground, defining what it means to end homelessness and which communities have done it. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. As USICH defines it, ending homelessness doesn’t mean that no one is ever homeless again; it means homelessness is rare and short because communities have systems to immediately rehouse someone who becomes homeless. Defining what it means to end homelessness helped communities advocate for the resources needed to meet that goal instead of succumbing to a less ambitious goal in the face of competing priorities or political pressure.

5. USICH enlisted billions of dollars in mainstream federal funding. The country’s targeted homelessness funding alone is never going to end homelessness. When agencies with mainstream programs, such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, and Social Security Disability Insurance, help reduce barriers to benefits for people experiencing homelessness, they provide a critical boost toward the finish line. 

Despite this progress, the work to end and prevent homelessness is far from over. If USICH sunsets in 2017, it will leave behind a long to-do list that that could not be absorbed by other agencies. That list includes the following:

1. Transition to new leaders under the next administration. The federal government is organized in silos. Federal leaders work hard to reach across those silos, but with 19 federal agencies at the table in the work to end homelessness, relationship building and coordination is a full-time job. The national and local leaders we interviewed said that USICH is the glue that holds these agency leaders together, which is especially important for leaders new to their roles. If USICH sunsets in the first year of a new administration, those connections and commitments to coordination could be weakened.

2. Drive the plan to end family and youth homelessness in 2020. USICH has developed a vision for a community response to ending family and youth homelessness that includes workforce partners, child welfare agencies, juvenile justice centers, schools, and community programs. If USICH sunsets, leaders worry about maintaining the urgency and intensive coordination needed to bring these partners to the table and drive plans forward.

3. Carry the vision for transforming community systems. Even communities that have ended homelessness among some groups aren’t anywhere near finished. They are more aware than ever of the cross-sector collaboration needed to create affordable housing, job connections, and systems that prevent people and families from becoming homeless. If USICH sunsets, communities fear that the vision may shrink and no longer reflect the bigger picture of preventing homelessness altogether.

These are the perspectives of leaders working to end homelessness who would be most affected by USICH’s sunset in 2017. The ball is in Congress’s court to use the best available evidence as it considers reauthorizing the council. 

In this Monday, March 7, 2016, photograph, Salvatore Garofalo sits in a lawn chair in a makeshift homeless camp across from the Denver Rescue Mission in downtown Denver.  (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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