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2008 Homeless funding reauthorization and rural communities

The McKinney-Vento Act, which provides funding for a variety of homeless programs, is currently up for reauthorization for 2008. HR 840, the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, and SB 1518, the Community Partnership to End Homelessness Act (CPEHA), are the House and Senate versions, respectively.

One of the programs I manage is a McKinney-Vento Continuum of Care program in rural Oregon. My interest in these two bills relates specifically to their impact on homeless program design and implementation in rural areas. Of the two, I strongly prefer the Senate version, for reasons I will discuss. However, both bills propose some much-needed changes, which I hope will be included in the final version of this legislation:

  • Both proposals call for expanded definitions of homelessness, specifically allowing funding to be used for people who are “doubled up,” living with someone else because of loss of their own housing or economic hardship. Under current rules, people who are couch-surfing do not meet the definition of homelessness.
  • Both add funding for homelessness prevention activities.
  • Both address collection of personally-identifying information for Homeless Management Information Systems, which has been required by McKinney-Vento legislation in the past, in light of VAWA legislation that forbids collection of such information for victims of domestic violence.

The changes proposed by HEARTH that concern me most are related to matching requirements and local planning processes. Past legislation has required a 25% cash match for McKinney-Vento funds used for Supportive Housing Program supportive services, that is, for non-leasing activities. For whatever reason, dollars used for leasing have not been subject to a cash match requirement in the past; I have suspected that this was related to the housing emphasis of the funds. HEARTH appears to change this practice, requiring a 25% match on all funds received from the grant:

An entity who submits an application and receives a grant under this subtitle shall make available contributions, in cash or in donated services, in an amount equal to not less than 25 percent of the Federal funds provided under the grant. [Sec. 430 of HR 840]

This has been interpreted elsewhere to include both housing and services. A National Low Income Housing Coalition press release, describing the changes HEARTH proposes, notes that new regulations would “require a 25% match to be met either in cash or with in-kind contributions for all housing and supportive services” [NLIHC].

If implemented, this change will have a disproportionate impact on rural Continua of Care. Urban homeless projects have access not only to more local funding but also to matching funds from VA hospitals, large mental health organizations, and other significant sources that are limited or non-existent in rural communities.

HEARTH also changes local planning processes in problematic and draconian ways that do not take into account the limited resources in smaller rural communities. Community Homeless Assistance Planning Boards, discussed in Section 402 of HEARTH, will be much easier for large jurisdictions to implement than less populous areas due to the number of specifically defined participants the legislation requires.

In contrast, CPEHA acknowledges the challenges that face rural communities not just in addressing homelessness with more limited resources but also in applying for McKinney-Vento funding in the first place, creating simplified application processes and requirements for rural applicants. Under guidelines proposed by CPEHA, rural applications would be ranked against each other rather than against a larger pool that includes urban programs. (See National Alliance to End Homelessness McKinney-Vento brief for more discussion of impact on rural applicants.)

Furthermore, CPEHA would revise the current definition of chronically homeless people, who are being emphasized at the federal level for permanent housing efforts, in a way that will benefit both rural and urban homelessness programs. Currently, members of this preferred population are defined as follows: “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more OR has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” Under CPEHA, this definition would be expanded to include families.

Data gathered during the 2007 rural Oregon One Night Shelter Count showed nearly equal numbers of single chronically homeless individuals and families who otherwise met the chronically homeless definitions. (Some details available here.) Homeless care providers in rural Oregon currently face a challenge in that we have many “chronically homeless” families who need permanent supportive housing, but bonus projects that would provide funding for creating more permanent housing are only available for the current definition of chronically homeless people, which excludes families.

CPEHA has now been scheduled for debate in the Senate, so it’s a good time to call up our senators and urge them to support this legislation. I’ll find out where Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith stand and post an update later.

HEARTH is currently in the hands of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity. Members are listed here.

There are many good things to support in both of these bills; I hope that the final version of this legislation combines the strengths of both, especially in increasing flexibility for programs and in going farther to address homelessness in rural areas.