The U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs’ Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development held a hearing, “The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” on March 8. Witnesses included Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), and Richard Cho, senior advisor for housing and services at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In their opening statements, Dr. Cho and Director Olivet discussed the current state and causes of homelessness, the positive impact of historic resources made available through the “CARES Act” and “American Rescue Plan Act,” and USICH’s All In: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, which sets a short-term goal of reducing homelessness by 25% by 2025 (see Memo, 12/19/2022).
Subcommittee Chairwoman Tina Smith (D-MN) delivered opening remarks, stating that the “the backdrop to the issue of homelessness is that our nation is facing an affordable housing crisis.” Citing data from NLIHC’s The Gap, Chairwoman Smith discussed the impacts of the nationwide shortage of affordable housing, noting that homelessness disproportionately impacts certain Black, Latino, and Native communities. She discussed bipartisan efforts to address the homelessness and housing affordability crisis, including the “Choice in Affordable Housing Act” (S.32) introduced by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND) (see Memo, 1/30). Chairwoman Smith expressed hope that the subcommittee would identify “concrete steps to take together to address this deep challenge with a comprehensive approach, effective strategies, and the resources that we need.”
Chairwoman Smith highlighted the importance of investing in proven solutions to homelessness and addressing the root causes of the crisis. “We know what to do to solve this problem, we just need the will to fix it. We have data-driven strategies that are proven effective in addressing homelessness in recent years and are helping people who have fallen into homelessness. But we must also address the housing affordability challenges at all levels that are driving people into homelessness in the first place,” she said.
Ranking Member Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) claimed that Housing First fails to provide services, stating that “shuttling vulnerable people between programs without needed treatment is not the path to housing independence.” Director Olivet later clarified that Housing First does not mean “housing only.” The Housing First model recognizes that people with mental health challenges or substance use disorders often need stable housing before they can engage effectively in other services. Director Olivet described the homelessness approach used before Housing First was developed, explaining that requiring people to jump through hoops to obtain housing resulted in “people languishing in shelters, vehicles, and on the street.” In response to a follow-up question from Ranking Member Lummis about whether individuals should be required to participate in services, Director Olivet stated that voluntary treatment is more effective than forced participation. He added that the Housing First model has an extraordinary success rate.
Chairwoman Smith asked the witnesses to address the question of how to apply lessons learned from successes in reducing veteran, unaccompanied youth, and family homelessness to achieve the Biden administration’s goal of reducing homelessness by 25% by 2025. Director Olivet explained that targeted investments and alignment among mayors, county officials, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other stakeholders are central to efforts to address homelessness. “We need resources and evidence-based practices, scaled to meet the need. And we need to help communities to work with urgency and efficiency,” added Dr. Cho.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) highlighted that the unprecedented housing and homelessness resources provided through the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan were “overwhelmingly successful in keeping people in their homes during the pandemic.” He asked the witnesses how Congress and the administration can ensure that the expiration of pandemic-related resources does not contribute to an increase in homelessness. Dr. Cho responded that we need continued investments through the regular appropriations for permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, and more housing vouchers.
In response to a question from Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) about whether the Housing First approach treats individuals as victims, Director Olivet responded that he views the model as “fundamentally humane, empowering, and very much treating the person as an agent of their own future.” He explained that the older approach, which required individuals to meet pre-requisites prior to obtaining housing, was dehumanizing and disempowering. “What I see when we give people a stable foundation of housing is that they can live into their best selves. It’s impossible for people to rebuild their lives without the safety of a door they can lock,” said Director Olivet.
Senator Vance 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. Director Olivet responded that Housing First is an evidence-based model backed by multiple randomized controlled studies. When Senator Vance asked why homelessness is increasing if Housing First is effective, Director Olivet explained the connection between homelessness and the housing crisis. He added that we must scale Housing First to meet the need and address the root causes leading to higher rates of homelessness.
Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) addressed the direct connection between the high cost of housing and the rise of homelessness in Arizona, and she expressed her support for additional investments in the national Housing Trust Fund, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. Senator Sinema asked how Congress can strengthen project-based subsidy programs to increase the development of affordable housing. Dr. Cho responded that project-based vouchers are an important tool for expanding housing access and adding housing units, and he added that increasing investments and providing regulatory waivers and flexibilities would strengthen the program.
Senator Katie Britt (R-AL) asked the witnesses to discuss what has been most effective in reducing veteran homelessness. Dr. Cho stated that our country’s success in reducing veteran homelessness demonstrates the importance of partnerships among the federal government and communities across the country, as well as “a commitment to evidence-based practices, a commitment to working with urgency, and the importance of federal leadership.” Housing First is used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in its two largest homelessness programs, Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) and HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH). These programs, which are seen as the gold standard for homelessness programs both domestically and abroad, have been instrumental in reducing veteran homelessness.
Director Olivet pointed to bipartisan collaboration and the continuities in approach across departments like HUD, VA, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as central to the successful efforts that have reduced veteran homelessness by 55% since 2010 and 11% over the last two years (see Memo, 11/07/22). “We could take the veteran successes as a case study of how to do this with other populations,” said Director Olivet.
Watch a recording of the hearing at: https://bit.ly/3l45bmg
Read USICH Director Jeff Olivet’s written testimony at: https://bit.ly/3J6qUSf
Read HUD Senior Advisor Richard Cho’s written testimony at: https://bit.ly/3kZ49b0