The Shutdown of Broken Dreams

homelessness in america

Day 32 of the Government Shutdown and the Terrible Outcomes and Worse Outcomes to come are still rolling in. Today, The New York Times exposes the glaring negligence of the Trump administration’s housing, homelessness, and anti-poverty programs. Currently, 95% of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) federal workers are not working, which means a loss in resources for local governments and organizations from urban New York City to rural Kentucky. Community nonprofits all over the US have been left scrambling:

One month after the government shutdown began, its effects have begun to hurt some of the most vulnerable Americans: not just homeless people, but also those who are one crisis away from the streets. And nonprofit groups dedicated to helping low-income renters are already scrambling to survive without the lifeblood payments from HUD that began being cut off on Jan. 1.

This week on the Agreeing Loudly Coast to Coast podcast, we spent some time agreeing solemnly about the human costs of the government shutdown. Pat Meacham talked about the impact it’s had on social services, especially SNAP. Being in social services myself (albeit on the housing end of things), I agree and mentioned that the Coast Guard, which is protecting New York City and its port, is also going without pay throughout the shutdown.

In addition to these human costs, there are countless individuals and families throughout the country seeing their hopes of escaping homelessness slip away as HUD remains shuttered. There are also thousands upon thousands of precariously housed people who now face the possibility of slipping back into homelessness as predatory landlords put the pinch on them:

Landlords, especially smaller management companies operating on narrow margins, have begun pressuring poor, disabled and elderly tenants who cannot afford to make up the difference.

Normally with a Section 8 voucher the federal government pays a majority of a low-income tenant’s rent with a voucher, leaving the remainder up to the recipient to cover. Section 8 vouchers have grown in popularity as localities have moved away from the project-based housing developments (who by the way, are having their own problems right now). And the suffering caused by Trump’s shutdown isn’t limited to housing, either:

Most other social safety net programs are facing a similar, if less imminent, emergency. The Department of Agriculture has announced that funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps and other aid to almost 40 million poor and working-class Americans, will run out by March 1, and other nutrition programs are facing the same fate.

If you listen to the new episode this week, you’ll hear Pat cover the reality that Midwesterners face when it comes to funding cuts to SNAP. I’ve seen much of the same among New Yorkers receiving housing assistance and food benefits. Regardless of where they live, these at-risk populations have to stretch their already meagre benefits to the end of February.

A few years ago, Senator Cory Booker famously illustrated how hard it was to live off SNAP benefits by eating nothing but what a month’s worth of benefit could buy a person. Unfortunately, this point has been lost in all the political upheaval since then, but his point was clear—people who rely on SNAP are barely making ends meet when the government is functioning. I don’t know how he lasted a month, by the way. Maybe his vegan lifestyle gives him an advantage, but for me it would have  been difficult to live on SNAP for a month.

The point is, those who depend on SNAP for their monthly sustenance are barely getting by as it is. I commute on the subway to work every day, and being approached by a homeless or impoverished New Yorker (in addition to subway performers, hustlers, and grifters) asking MTA commuters for change, a dollar, or food, is a near-daily occurrence. The longer this shutdown goes on for, the more and more visible the pain it’s causing will become on the street and on MTA.

But New York (believe it or not) is at a relative advantage in comparison to other parts of the country. The city has an extremely active nonprofit community, as well as a robust slate of anti-poverty city resources. In reality, the worst of the suffering will occur in Trump Country—the rural heart of the president’s base of support:

While the housing crisis is just starting to hit individual tenants, it has already wreaked havoc on organizations responsible for housing homeless people and providing support services to veterans, people with disabilities and victims of domestic abuse.

The worst of the pain and societal consequences is only just beginning:

“If the shutdown continues, all these organizations will be left having to consider a spectrum of bad to terrible options, including staff layoffs and, in the worst-case scenario, evictions,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

Rapid re-housing (which has proven to be the most effective way to combat homelessness) and “housing-first” models work. But this progress in these areas will face determined resistance from landlords trying to protect their wallets. They’ll have a point, too, because the effects of a long shutdown won’t be limited to the poor—they’ll eventually ripple out and put financial pressure on landlords and developers, too.

We just crossed the one-month mark for the federal shutdown and rent is due soon:

Critics said HUD officials inadequately planned for an extended shutdown, failing to re-certify more than 1,000 contracts with landlords who provided subsidized housing.

This is not at all surprising given what I at a city meeting last week of homeless services, social services, housing professionals, and community advocates:

Smaller organizations, especially those that serve rural areas, are particularly vulnerable because they often lack endowments, cash reserves or lines of credit that their big-city counterparts can tap.

You mean it’s not just in New York, home state of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, but where else?

“We are providing services without getting paid for those services, and eventually that is going to catch up with us,” said Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky, which relies on a $1 million federal grant that covers about half its expenses each year.

….

Ms. Bush will soon have to stop paying some landlords, which could lead to evictions. To minimize the fallout, she has started to compile a list of owners willing to forgo payments for an extended period.

She sent a letter pleading for help to Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. Ms. Bush said the shutdown was putting “people’s lives at risk.”

She received an eight-word response, and no commitment to help.

“I’ll be sure to pass on your concerns,” Tiffany Ge, Mr. McConnell’s legal counsel, replied in an email to Ms. Bush.

A spokesman for Mr. McConnell said the senator would send a written response to Ms. Bush’s group and champion Mr. Trump’s latest offer to reopen the government — giving temporary protections to roughly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants in exchange for $5.7 billion for a border wall.

House Democrats have already rejected the president’s proposal.

This is America in 2019. It’s a big country and there’s a lot of good-hearted people trying to make sense of it all each and every day. I wish I had all the answers right now, but I don’t. But I do know three things:

1.) This shutdown must end and the government needs to fire back up again (and for most Departments and Agencies this takes a good month by the way).

2.) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for re-election in 2020. Whoever is interested in running against him drop me a line.

3.) Every tech hub in the United States currently has a real estate boom and a corresponding affordable housing stock, and homelessness crisis. Whoever makes combatting poverty and homelessness in the richest country in world history a center-piece of their campaign has my vote in 2020. I won’t wait up for it to happen though, the homeless and poorest Americans don’t vote much, but someone sure should ask them to someday.

If you want to learn more, I highly recommend  reading the National Alliance to End Homelessness’s critique and recommendations regarding federal anti-homelessness initiatives.

 

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