Senate Banking Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Challenges and Opportunities in Addressing Homelessness

The U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs’ Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development held a hearing, “Opportunities and Challenges in Addressing Homelessness,” on July 19. Witnesses for the hearing included Ann Oliva (chief executive officer of the National Alliance to End Homelessness), Kathryn Monet (chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans), Cathy ten Broeke (assistant commissioner and executive director of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness), Isabel McDevitt (co-founder and board president of Work Works America), and Jamie Kirsch (board member at Journey On).

Subcommittee Chair Tina Smith (D-MN) provided opening remarks, stating that “addressing homelessness is an area of bipartisan interest in the Senate. For example, Senator Bennet [D-CO] and Senator Portman [R-OH], along with our full Committee Chair, Senator Brown [D-OH], have introduced the ‘Eviction Crisis Act’, which would direct assistance to families who are most at-risk of losing their homes.” NLIHC has played an integral role in advocating for the “Eviction Crisis Act” and its House companion, the “Stable Families Act,” introduced by Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY) (see Memo, 7/11).

“It also must be acknowledged that the biggest factor in the rise of homelessness is the severe shortage of affordable housing and the lack of housing supply,” continued Chair Smith. “In my view, the answer is to provide shelter and housing first, along with the supportive services necessary to help people get stable and healthy.” Ms. Oliva agreed, stating “the lack of available supportive and affordable housing units dedicated to people experiencing homelessness” represents a long-standing challenge to addressing homelessness.

Ms. Oliva also discussed the successful implementation of pandemic-related homelessness assistance programs, including Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA), Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHVs), and Emergency Solutions Grants. The “American Rescue Plan Act” provided funding for 70,000 EHVs targeted specifically to individuals and families experiencing or at-risk of homelessness. Ms. Oliva noted that almost 90% of EHVs have been leased or issued and credited the high take-up rate with the flexibilities Congress gave HUD in creating the program, including alternate requirements to decrease programmatic barriers and funding for landlord incentives. Ms. ten Broeke agreed, stating that the COVID-19-related federal resources provided communities with the flexibility needed to distribute funding quickly.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Rounds (R-SD) emphasized the importance of targeting investments to those most impacted, including Native communities, noting that “nationwide, Native Americans have the second-highest rate of homelessness.” Ms. Kirsh agreed and noted that HUD’s annual Point-In-Time Count, which attempts to measure the number of people experiencing sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, does not adequately reflect homelessness among Native communities. “The Point-In-Time Count does not allow communities, especially tribal communities…to capture those who are in housing insecure settings…[It] does not capture homelessness in the way that our Native American community members experience it,” said Ms. Krish.

Ranking Member Rounds also called into question the efficacy of Housing First, a proven model for addressing homelessness that prioritizes access to safe, stable housing with access to wrap-around services when needed in order to achieve long-term housing stability. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) challenged his colleague’s misconceptions about Housing First, noting that some people believe “Housing First excludes wrap-around services, when in fact [wrap-around services] are an important part of the [Housing First] model, ensuring someone has a safe place to call home so they can use…wrap-around services.”

Ms. Oliva clarified that “Housing First…is an approach that is grounded in treating people with dignity, and providing choice to people who are in vulnerable situations. Accessing permanent housing is prioritized, so that people experiencing homelessness have a safe and stable foundation to support achieving other goals.”

“Let me be really clear on this point,” said Ms. Oliva. “Housing First is never housing only when it is implemented according to the model. Services are offered even before a person moves into their permanent housing, and they are tailored to the needs of the person or family. The evidence base is incredibly strong, we have high retention rates…and the data also shows cost savings for a Housing First approach in a lot of cases, because as people have more consistent support, and they don’t have to access emergency services, the cost to the community goes down.”

Watch a recording of the hearing and read witnesses’ testimony at: