President & CEO, National Low Income Housing Coalition
What do you wish everyone knew about homelessness?
As a country, we choose to allow homelessness to continue: we can instead choose to end it.
While individual people experiencing homelessness may face a range of challenges in their lives, the one thing they have in common is a lack of access to an affordable and accessible home. Today there is a national shortage of over seven million affordable homes for the lowest income people. This shortage has steadily grown in recent years, as has housing poverty and, in some communities, homelessness. The shortage—a result of stagnant wages, rising rents and chronic underinvestment in federal solutions—has created today’s homelessness and housing poverty.
Homelessness is a modern phenomenon. In the 1970s, our country had a surplus of homes affordable and available to the lowest income people. President Nixon imposed a moratorium on new development of affordable homes for extremely low income people and, soon after, President Reagan dramatically slashed HUD funding. These actions, among others, ushered in a new era of homelessness with a dramatic increase in the number of people sleeping on the streets and in cars. Years after those shortsighted and devastating cuts, a major infusion of federal resources were needed to manage the problem we had created, through homeless shelters and services. We’ve never recovered the same levels of federal funding for deeply targeted housing programs that we had back then.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Of all social issues, homelessness is perhaps simplest (though by no means easiest) to solve – we have the data, the solutions and the resources to end homelessness. We lack only the political will to fund those solutions at the scale necessary.
What is the biggest challenge in your work today?
It’s a challenging time—we face some of the most severe threats to affordable housing and community development programs, and to the people they serve, than we have in decades. Since taking office, the current administration has continuously sought to eliminate, reduce or roll back vital programs that make homes affordable to the lowest income people. Just seven weeks after enacting deep tax cuts for wealthy people and corporations, the administration pivoted to propose immense spending cuts for programs that meet the basic and urgent needs of the lowest income and most vulnerable people throughout the country.
The cruelty of the president’s proposals are breathtaking. He proposes cutting health care from those who need it most, reducing and restricting food assistance to low income seniors and families with young children, and raising rents on those who can least afford it. The administration turns its back on the millions of seniors, people with disabilities and families with children living in deteriorating public housing and on low income people and communities working to recover and rebuild after disasters, by proposing to eliminate vital resources for public housing, the national Housing Trust Fund, and community development. By proposing to cut HUD funding by an astounding $11 billion, President Trump makes clear his willingness to increase evictions and homelessness—for the families who could lose their rental assistance due to the cuts and for the low income and vulnerable seniors, people with disabilities and families with children who would be unable to manage having to spend more of their very limited incomes to cover rent increases.
Thankfully, we are making progress despite these tremendous threats. After a year of focused and effective advocacy from people throughout the country, together with Congressional champions dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable people, Congress rejected the administration’s proposals to cut funding and instead increased spending on HUD [Housing and Urban Development] programs by an historic 10%. We have much further to go to achieve the funding levels necessary, but this past year affirmed the power of focused advocacy.
Who or what inspires you to do your work?
Twenty years ago next month, I returned to the US after three years of living in a tiny village in central Africa. As a community development Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, I saw both the deepest poverty and the greatest resilience imaginable. And I learned that, no matter how humble the structure, the safety and security of a home made learning, healing and growing possible.
Three years later and back in the US, I worked on a national research study that set out to examine the effects of welfare reform on women living in poverty. Over the course of a year, I interviewed the women in their San Antonio homes each month, where they told me about what it took to make ends meet. The difference that affordable housing made in their lives was clear. Those without it often left medical bills unpaid so that they could buy diapers. Their electricity was shut off so that they could fix their car to get to work. They and their children lived in constant fear of being evicted – and often they were—because even after all their trade-offs, they still couldn’t get ahead, stay ahead and pay their rent.
I think of the women in San Antonio, my friends in Zambia and the inspiring resident leaders from across the country often. They, and the many thousands more low income people that I’ve been fortunate to learn from and work with over the years, continue to inspire me. Nobody should be homeless or on the cusp of homelessness; it’s especially shameful in a country with such riches. We can and must—and I believe we will—do better.