This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Act, the landmark 1987 legislation that set the template for the federal response to homelessness. Twenty years ago, this legislation was the movement against homelessness’ biggest victory ever, but what should have been a beginning became an end in itself. McKinney-Vento has become a deal with the devil, and not an especially good one.
The past thirty years has seen a relentless assault upon the poor. Name a program that serves low-income people — Social Security Insurance, Medicaid, Community Development Block Grants — and you’ll see a history of steady attrition.
While the centerpiece of the Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness is “Housing First,” federal funding for housing has been cut by $52 billion since 1979. Between 1996 and 2005, 100,000 public housing units have been lost. There has been no new funding for public housing since 1996. The federal strategy of devolving the responsibility for housing to the localities is seldom questioned.
For all our talk of "ending homelessness," advocates have grown appallingly complacent. We have settled for McKinney-Vento, an insider’s game designed to divide and conquer that has never exceeded $1.5 billion in annual funding. We win a battle here and there while the war on the poor rages on unchecked.
One routinely hears our "political realists" lament that the feds are simply out of the housing game and it's up to us locally to solve homelessness. Homeless and poor people deserve better than a self-defeating advocacy that decides the limits of the possible before even trying.
Our own Patty Murray chairs the Senate Housing committee, and is in a tremendously powerful position to influence federal policy. Murray should be the target of a grassroots national campaign to up the federal ante. And yet, she is not.
Homeless advocates (and I am tempted to put the phrase in quotation marks) have allowed the terms of the debate to be set by the representatives of the Bush administration. Does anyone really believe that the US Interagency Council on Homelessness is some sort of fifth column burrowing from within? That their agenda is somehow at odds with everything else that Bush does?
The struggle to end homelessness and poverty should be housing and wage led, and should link to the struggles of kids, the elderly, immigrants, people of color, working people, and prisoners. Homelessness is about economic insecurity, and almost everyone can relate to that.
But that's not what we're talking about, is it?
An end to homelessness will not be found in better data, more specialization, and an obsession with the personal dysfunctions of the poor. These priorities might be where the federal funding is, but they do not lead to economic justice or greater equality.
$52 billion lost in public housing funding. Steady cuts to other programs that serve the poor. And $1.5 billion gained in McKinney-Vento. This is the definition of winning the battle but losing the war.
Let's take that analogy a little further.
In war, collaboration with the enemy is a capital offense. But this, apparently, isn't a war at all. It's a cozy little Hyatt-Regency tea party of the well-paid and comfortable. And we don't just collaborate with the enemy. We invite him to keynote our conferences.