The US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), which coordinates the federal government’s work to end homelessness by 2020, will automatically sunset in September 2017 without congressional reauthorization. Since its establishment in 1987, the agency has been subject to changing congressional and administrative priorities, losing its funding for six years before it was re-funded in 2001. Evidence-based evaluation of the program should drive Congress’s decisions as it considers reauthorizing the council.
Homelessness is a complex problem that requires coordination across systems. The US Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor, Education, and Veterans Affairs have various programs and funding streams dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness. Bureaucratic barriers often prevent streamlining these targeted programs and funding streams. Additionally, federal silos can often weaken accountability for action and results, as each agency lacks the full budget and authority to address the multisystem challenges at the root of homelessness.
USICH was established to help overcome these challenges by coordinating the federal government’s efforts to end homelessness. The council includes the heads of 19 federal agencies and elects a chair annually from among its members. The council appoints an executive director, who is supported by 18 staff. USICH has an annual budget of approximately $3.5 million. In 2010, the council published Opening Doors, the federal government’s plan to end homelessness.
Interagency councils have been used to address a number of interrelated issues, ranging from the economic recovery after September 11th to prisoner reentry to invasive species. These coordinating bodies are charged with much but are usually provided little direct authority and budget. Their difficult task is to bring agencies together under one vision, coordinate programs and initiatives, marshal resources, and align and scale best practices and evidence-based programs.
Progress toward ending homelessness presents a mixed picture. From 2007 to 2015, chronic homelessness decreased by 31 percent; from 2009 to 2015, homelessness among veterans decreased by 35 percent. More than 20 communities have declared an end to homelessness among veterans. But communities haven’t made similar progress reducing homelessness for families, youth, and single adults. For these populations, homelessness in high-rent cities is rising quickly; places like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, among others, have declared a homeless state of emergency. USICH’s role in homelessness wins, as well as the challenges moving forward are not clearly understood.
We need data to tell us how effective USICH has been and how far it is likely to progress toward its mandate to end homelessness. In April, the Urban Institute launched an independent evaluation to assess how USICH’s planned sunset may affect the federal goal of preventing and ending homelessness by 2020. The evaluation, funded by a group of foundations that includes the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Melville Charitable Trust, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Butler Family Fund, will include a review of USICH activities and performance data, interviews with key stakeholders, and an in-depth look at the agency’s efforts to coordinate local efforts in a few communities.
Homelessness is a complex but solvable problem, and ending it is a worthy goal. Our research evaluation will inform policymakers about whether an interagency council is an effective instrument in achieving this goal.