Priority Recommendations Regarding Implementation of the
Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act
The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has prepared the following recommendations on areas it considers priorities for consideration by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as it develops its proposed rule to explain or elaborate the provisions of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act. The HEARTH Act, enacted in 2009, reauthorized, changed, and renamed three McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act programs administered by HUD – Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG), Continuum of Care (CoC), and Rural Housing Stability Assistance (RHSA).
Further, we offer these recommendations as guidance to states, communities, and HUD McKinney-Vento applicants, recipients, project sponsors, and subgrantees as they plan their responses to the HEARTH Act and forthcoming regulations.
Recommendation 1: Ensure Meaningful Participation of People Experiencing Homelessness in HEARTH Policy-Setting and Decision-Making
The HEARTH Act requires recipients and/or project sponsors in all three HUD McKinney-Vento programs to ensure homeless and formerly homeless people’s participation in policy setting and decision making. (The manner by which they are to be afforded participation rights varies between the programs).
These homeless participation requirements are fundamental to the fair, equitable, and consumer-responsive implementation of HUD’s McKinney-Vento programs. The National Coalition for the Homeless challenges all applicants, recipients, and project sponsors to exceed their minimum obligations under the law to ensure homeless people’s meaningful participation in policy setting and decision making. For example, recipients and project sponsors ought to exceed the required minimum of one consumer on boards of directors or other policy setting bodies. They should implement strategies for securing input from homeless people of all life circumstances in needs assessment and priority setting, including surveys, focus groups, and open meetings at various locations and hours. Collaborative applicants should convene a group of people experiencing homelessness to develop the framework for the continuum of care homeless assistance plan and use that work product as the foundation for preparing the collaborative application.
Minimally, HUD should require applicants, recipients, and project sponsors to certify their compliance with the Act’s homeless participation requirements. Further, HUD should challenge applicants, recipients, and project sponsors to exceed the minimum requirements of consumer participation. HUD should incentivize collaborative applicants to include people experiencing homelessness on their governing bodies by awarding additional points to applicants with at least one-quarter of governing body members being currently homeless people of diverse life circumstances. The Department should establish a grievance process for homeless people and their representatives to petition for redress if collaborative applicants or project sponsors fail to meet the homeless participation requirement. Further HUD should assist recipients, project sponsors, and applicants in meeting the homeless participation requirements by providing funding to them, such as by using amounts reserved by the Department for technical assistance, to provide financial assistance to consumers for transportation assistance, child care assistance, replacement of lost wages, or stipends to enable their full participation in policy setting and decision making. This funding should be made available to applicants prior to the commencement of the annual competitions for HUD McKinney-Vento funds so that applicants may have the means to involve homeless people in application planning and development.
Recommendation 2: Encourage Eligible Communities to Use Other Federal Definitions of Homelessness when Determining Eligibility for Continuum of Care assistance
The HEARTH Act permits applicants with low rates of homelessness (geographic areas where 1/10th of one percent of the general population is greater than the most recent one-night count of homeless people for that geographic area) to use Continuum of Care funds for families and youth who are not homeless under the HUD definition but are homeless under other federal definitions. In its forthcoming HEARTH regulation, HUD should strongly encourage applicants meeting the conditions set forth in the Act to avail themselves of the opportunity to serve with CoC funds people in their geographic areas considered homeless under other federal definitions of the term.
The National Coalition for the Homeless strongly encourages all applicants, recipients, and project sponsors to determine if this provision of the HEARTH ACT applies to their geographic area, and if so to plan to implement this flexibility feature of the Act, and in so doing make all homeless families and youth in their community eligible for HUD McKinney-Vento services.
Please note that NCH has submitted comments to HUD on its proposed rule (Docket No. FR-5333-P-01) to explain or elaborate the terms “homeless,” “homeless individual,” “homeless person,” and “homeless individual with a disability” as defined in the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act. Those comments are available at: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/advocacy/NCHCommentsOnHEARTH.html
Recommendation 3: Maintain Adequate Level of Outreach, Emergency Housing, Transitional Housing, and Supportive Services
The HEARTH Act adds homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing assistance as eligible activities under the McKinney-Vento programs. The National Coalition for the Homeless supported these additional uses under the condition that substantial additional appropriations would be made to McKinney-Vento programs to accommodate these new purposes without harming existing activities. This action was accomplished temporarily by inclusion of funding for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Regrettably, Congress does not appear willing to maintain its level of spending on the HPRP stimulus program nor to increase appropriations for HUD McKinney-Vento programs at levels sufficient to balance the pending HPRP loss.
These budgetary decisions should not put in peril people experiencing homelessness at the onset of their housing crisis or seeking services additional to housing, nor the national network of providers providing vital emergency housing, transitional housing, and supportive services to the homeless population.
We urge HUD to restate the full set of activities eligible for funding through each of the McKinney-Vento programs and to explicitly state that the Department does not favor certain activities over others, thereby preserving flexibility at the consumer and community levels to implement activities most responsive to the housing and services gaps in their geographic areas. Further, HUD should instruct applicants and recipients of McKinney-Vento funds to demonstrate in their applications for funding that they have at least maintained adequate effort toward emergency housing, transitional housing, and supportive services activities.
Further we urge the Obama Administration, in its annual budget requests for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to include resources at least at levels sufficient for continuing effective activities that were already eligible under prior law.
Rapid access to emergency housing remains a critical component of the homeless assistance continuum of care as this intervention meets the immediate survival and basic human needs of thousands of people without homes annually and for whom more stable housing options are simply not available. Renovation and operation of emergency housing and the provision of supportive services in emergency housing and through street outreach remain eligible uses of funds through the HEARTH Act’s Emergency Solutions Grants program. Further, the law permits ESG grantees to continue to expend funds for emergency housing and support services at the full level they expended ESG funds on such activities prior to the effective date of the HEARTH Act. The National Coalition for the Homeless strongly encourages all ESG grantees to be mindful of this flexibility as they plan their future use of ESG funds, and to maintain adequate effort toward emergency housing and supportive services activities.
HUD McKinney-Vento homeless assistance programs were never intended to provide permanent solutions to mass homelessness. While we recognize that permanent eligible activities have been added to the programs over time, NCH will continue to press Congress, the Administration, states, and communities to pursue strategies alternative to loading up HUD McKinney-Vento with permanency responsibilities, such as funding of a National Housing Trust Fund and state housing trust funds, increased appropriations for permanent affordable housing programs, implementation of a policy of universal health care for all Americans, establishment of a policy of universal livable incomes for All Americans, and expanded workforce service opportunities for homeless and other poor people.
Recommendation 4: Segregate and Sequence Competitions for Rural Housing Stability and Continuum of Care Programs So That Rural Homeless Assistance Providers are Not Disadvantaged
The HEARTH Act establishes a Rural Housing Stability Assistance program as an alternate pathway to HUD McKinney-Vento funds for rural geographical areas and rural homeless assistance providers. Rural communities and project sponsors remain eligible to apply for funds through the Continuum of Care program, but must choose one pathway or the other.
The HEARTH regulation and HUD practice should place the cycles for competition of the Continuum of Care and Rural Housing Stability Assistance programs on distinct and sequential timetables with RHSA award announcements being made prior to the commencement of the CoC competition, so that the rural homeless assistance communities and project sponsors that are unsuccessful in obtaining funds through RHSA may not be denied the opportunity to apply for funds through the CoC program.
Recommendation 5: Ensure Designation of Appropriate and Qualified Collaborative Applicants and Unified Funding Agencies
The HEARTH Act establishes the construct of collaborative applicants, which are entities that agree to serve as the applicant for project sponsors who jointly submit a single application for Continuum of Care funds.
Also, the HEARTH Act establishes the construct of unified agencies, which are collaborative applicants that agree to or are selected by HUD to receive and distribute to project sponsors in the applicable geographic area funds for projects to be carried out by such sponsors.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has a number of concerns with these management instruments. Among them are the high possibility of local government domination of the policy setting, decision making, and application processes, lack of clarity in the role that people experiencing homelessness, direct service providers, and project sponsors will play in selecting the collaborative applicant or unified funding agency, the timing and manner by which funds will flow to project sponsors through the UFA, and potential for conflicts of interest between the collaborative applicant or UFA and a sponsor or sponsors.
In response to these concerns, the HEARTH regulation should articulate a policy whereby project sponsors in the applicable geographic area will have the opportunity select their own collaborative applicant or UFA. We recommend that applicants or prospective designees for collaborative applicant or UFA standing demonstrate that homeless people in the geographic area have had an opportunity to comment on the designation of collaborative applicant or UFA and have had those comments seriously considered, and also that at least 90 percent of current project sponsors and applicants for project sponsorship consent to a collaborative applicant’s designation as a collaborative applicant or UFA before HUD makes such designation. HUD should establish a grievance process for people experiencing homelessness, applicants, and project sponsors to petition for redress if boundaries of a current CoC geographic area are being adjusted or when collaborative applicants are being consolidated or dissected, prior to HUD making a final designation of the collaborative applicant or UFA. The Department should establish a grievance process for people experiencing homelessness, applicants, and project sponsors to petition for redress if the collaborative applicant or UFA fails to meet its responsibilities. The regulation should remind project sponsors of the opportunity the law affords for them to apply as a solo applicant, rather than through a collaborative application. The regulation should permit project sponsors falling under a collaborative applicant or UFA to continue to have authority to draw down their own federal funds through the LOCCS system. Finally, tribal authorities should be deemed eligible to function as a UFA.
Recommendation 6: Reform the Homeless Management Information System
In 2009 NCH issued a detailed position statement on homeless data collection and reporting. NCH urges HUD to apply the principles and recommendations of the statement to components of the HEARTH regulation that will address the Homeless Management Information System.
Recommendation 7: Issue Moratorium on Housing Consolidated Plan Changes that Affect the Provision of Homeless Assistance
In the absence of the timely issuance of regulations by HUD to explain or elaborate the provisions of the HEARTH Act, states and communities are acting without explicit federal direction or guidance to interpret the statute and make changes to their homeless assistance systems, policies, procedures, and funding choices. Many of these changes are being pursued through annual updates to the consolidated plan, a document that jurisdictions submit to HUD if they receive funding under any of HUD’s Community Planning and Development programs. The consolidated plan also serves as the jurisdiction’s planning document for the use of the funds received under these programs.
Given that HUD has yet to issue HEARTH regulations, NCH urges the Department to issue a moratorium instructing jurisdictional authorities responsible for producing the consolidated plan to refrain from making any substantial changes that affect its homeless assistance components. A moratorium would prevent jurisdictions from making changes that will later need to be reversed due to conflict with the HEARTH regulation. Moreover, jurisdictional changes to their plans’ homeless assistance components at this stage of regulation development may prejudice HUD toward a conclusion it would not have otherwise reached but for the need of its regulation to cover a policy or practice accepted by HUD in its review of jurisdictions’ consolidated plans.
Recommendation 8: Prohibit Cash Incentives for High-Performing Communities
The HEARTH Act requires HUD to designate, on an annual basis, which collaborative applicants represent high-performing communities. Collaborative applicants receiving such designation are granted flexibility in their use of HUD McKinney-Vento funds not afforded to communities without the high-performing designation.
The HEARTH Act does not authorize the Department to provide additional funds to high-performing communities as a reward for their high performance. The National Coalition for the Homeless would oppose an administrative action to provide such bonuses, as financial rewards to high-performing communities would only further disadvantage communities that are “lower performing” and in greater need of limited federal funds than those communities that are further along in reducing or eliminating homelessness.