Twenty-six years ago, in July, 1987, the first federal legislation specifically addressing homelessness in America became law. They called it the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. It’s changed over the years – it’s now called McKinney-Vento – but many advocates still consider it the only major piece of federal legislation on homelessness.
The law passed as modern day homelessness was exploding across America. There have always been people experiencing homelessness, but what was happening in the 1980s was different. The numbers were growing and it wasn’t limited to just a section of town, like New York’s Bowery. It wasn’t just big towns. And it was getting worse. Quickly.
There wasn’t just one cause. Deinstitutionalization, the movement to “mainstream” people previously in institutions was part of it. So was slashing cuts to affordable housing programs. Changes in technology and employment trends added to it. Emotional or mental health problems and addiction, especially among Vietnam era veterans, was a factor. Whatever the causes, homelessness was noticeable and remarkable.
The original McKinney Act established programs for the “growing numbers of homeless persons,” – 20 distinct programs. Recognizing the myriad causes of homelessness it funded emergency food and shelter block grants, created a transitional and a permanent housing program and funded mental health care and substance abuse programs for homeless people. McKinney established a primary health services program for people experiencing homelessness, set up education and job training programs and special programs for veterans.
From 1987 through 1994 more than $5.1 billion funded the 20 McKinney programs flowing through nine federal agencies.
Over time the McKinney Act was amended. Today McKinney-Vento, still a source of funding for programs for people experiencing homelessness, is primarily known as an education bill of rights for children suffering homelessness or unstably housed. Unfortunately, children are the fastest growing part of America’s homeless population, particularly in New York City. McKinney-Vento protects those kids, guarantees them continuing education at the school they were attending if they choose, or at a new school, and requires every school district in America serve homeless children with an appropriate plan and services.
One more thing about Stewart McKinney, the author of the law officially named “The Urgent Relief for Homeless Act.” This self-described fighter for federal housing programs, home rule for D.C. and programs to help Ameriasian children and homeless people was a Republican.
Helping poor people and housing homeless families isn’t a partisan issue.
Surely the urgent need for affordable housing is as great in 2013 as the urgent need to address homelessness in 1987. With 15% of Americans in poverty, and 21% below poverty in New York City, the ever widening gap between at best stagnant average wages for working class Americans and housing costs escalating at annual rates of 3-15% annually calls for “urgent relief.” It’s estimated that sequestration cuts alone will create another 150,000 homeless people if nothing is done.
Housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, providing healthcare to those in need and educating our kids aren’t partisan issues.
Happy anniversary to the McKinney Homeless Urgent Relief Act. And Stewart McKinney, here’s thinking of you.