On any night across America, it’s estimated that 500,000 to 600,000 people are homeless, with about one-third sleeping on the street and the rest in shelters.With continuing economic fallout from the COVID pandemic, record levels of inflation and a severe shortage of affordable housing, shelters are reporting a steep increase in the number of people seeking assistance. Outside of the shelter system, the number of individuals and families living in encampments or on the street in major cities is also rising.
In response to the crisis, the Biden administration announced a detailed plan on Dec. 19, with the goal of reducing homelessness in the U.S. by 25 percent by 2025. The new policy is formally known as “All In: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.” According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the plan includes efforts to address ongoing systemic racism at the heart of many homelessness-related issues.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Here, he describes the crisis of homelessness across America, his support for the Biden administration’s new federal strategic plan, and his belief that “housing must be a fundamental human right for those living in the richest country in the history of the world.”
DONALD WHITEHEAD: I think they have laid out a plan that makes it doable. The previous administration was really sort of supportive of criminalization practices that arrested people for being homeless or forced them into institutions. The problem with that is that it doesn’t change their homelessness once they get out of the institution or get out of the jail cell, they’re still homeless.
So I think this new interagency council is a welcome change to previous administrations. They specifically called out the structural racism. They specifically call out the negative impacts of criminalizing people experiencing homelessness. And it also talks about the solutions really providing the level of affordable housing necessary to meet the needs of people both experiencing homelessness and on the verge.
SCOTT HARRIS: As with most policies, this strategy does it actually come up with the money? Or is this something that’s going to be debated in Congress and will have to be allocated by the legislators?
DONALD WHITEHEAD: It’ll have to be allocated by the legislators. But even in the most recent budget, there’s some improvement. There’s about 13,000 more housing vouchers that’ll go out into the community. There is a, I believe, 4 percent increase in overall homeless assistance funds and they also just announced a government-wide effort to really look into the issue of unsheltered homelessness, because that is our major problem.
Over the last five years, we’ve seen those numbers grow, the people who are actually living outside. At the same time, we’ve seen the growth in housing prices. And so the plan and also the current budget that just got passed really does make some significant increases in some of the housing programs, also those for elderly and disabled individuals and veterans.
So there has been not enough yet. And there’s a long way to go. And we’ll have to convince members of Congress to make the necessary resources available. But I think that this budget is a really good start in the right direction.
SCOTT HARRIS: As I understand it, this strategy also importantly includes people who have experienced homelessness themselves to have a prominent role in policymaking. Tell us how important that is.
DONALD WHITEHEAD: Yes. It’s incredibly important. If you think about any issue, the people who are most affected, who are closest to the issue, are the people who are relied upon to at least assist in some of the solutions. The involvement of people with lived experience has ramped up considerably over the last three to four years. Our organization has been deeply involved in that.
We actually have a program right now called the Lived Experience Training Academy, which helps people with lived experience actually understand better those roles when it comes to being a part of planning processes. We think that it’s incredibly important. The programs that do it are extremely effective because people with the experience of going through the system can really tell you, first of all, does the system work?
Does it actually provide the outcome that it was designed to provide? And also, if there are blind spots in the way the program is structured, delivered, any of those things, people have lived experience or valuable resources in helping to understand that.
SCOTT HARRIS: Well, we only have a minute or two left and I wanted to end on this note. How important is it for our country to recognize housing as a fundamental human right to move forward in addressing the homelessness crisis in the United States?
DONALD WHITEHEAD: It is incredibly important. It’s something that the rest of the world has already signed on to. Housing should be a right. The important thing about it and what people should understand is it’s cost effective. It actually saves the community money when we provide resources for people with lived experience and if we address the issue of homelessness in a comprehensive way, it will help bring down costs in so many other areas.
And the most important thing, it’ll allow people to realize the American dream. We will promise life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You can’t pursue happiness if you’re living on the sidewalk.
For more information about the Biden administration’s new federal strategic plan to address homelessness in America visit the National Coalition for the Homeless at nationalhomeless.org, Bring America Home Now campaign at bringamericahomenow.org and the National Low Income Housing Coalition at nlihc.org.
For the best listening experience and to never miss an episode, subscribe to Between The Lines on your favorite podcast app or platform: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Tunein + Alexa, Castbox, Overcast, Podfriend, iHeartRadio, Castro, Pocket Casts, RSS Feed.