Public Comment

HUD Hooks Funding to Fairness

Carol Denney
Friday November 06, 2015 - 02:20:00 PM

Is your local politician immune to moral shaming? Does he or she pass ordinances targeting homeless people for sitting down, or sleeping in public, or having camping equipment with you? Are you scratching your head wondering how to make it stop? 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) might be able to help. 

Almost two billion dollars of “Continuum of Care” grant money is slated to go to applicants who use proven, effective strategies to address homelessness. Applicants will compete for funding based on their willingness to adopt best practices, such as permanent housing.  

It’s one thing to stack up position papers on the waste of continually giving tickets to people with no money, cycling people through emergency rooms instead of providing housing and services, and wasting police resources on issues which would disappear if everybody simply had somewhere to live. 

But it’s another thing to hold a steaming pot of two billion dollars of public funding under municipal and county noses with an offer to share it if and only if it isn’t wasted. 

Treating people who have nowhere to go as though they were criminals isn’t just bewildering, ineffective, and immoral—it’s wasteful. The HUD guidelines are clear: they want proof that cities are using proven strategies that have a lasting impact on a local level, a focus on root causes, a commitment to decriminalization, and housing first as an effective strategy. The guidelines were issued only a few short weeks after the Department of Justice’s Statement of Interest clarifying that laws criminalizing sleeping, sitting down, etc., are cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of constitutional rights. 

Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty puts it this way:“for the first time HUD is asking Continuums to ‘describe how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness.’ Inthe extremely competitive funding process, Continuums’ ability to fully respond to thisquestion can determine up to two points in the funding application, and in many cases could bethe difference between receiving funding and not.” 

Imagine the city of Santa Cruz, which has criminalized sleeping, or the city of Sacramento, which has criminalized “camping” on public or private property without a permit, attempting to address this particular portion of an application for federal funds. 

No one can be sure whether this clear signal regarding Continuum of Care grant money is something cities can sidestep semantically by referring to what we recognize as anti-poor laws as something else— “safety enhancement” laws to keep sidewalks from being blocked? Park protection laws to keep public lawns healthy? Politicians use stock phrases to defend anti-poor laws, suggesting that they’re trying to make sidewalks accessible, to enhance “commercial vitality”[1], to address a public “perception” of danger, etc. And certainly HUD’s even more recent announcement that it is proposing a reduction in the Bar Area East Bay’s Section 8 fair market rents, which will increase the number of households unable to use Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, indicates that the housing crisis will not disappear overnight. 

But the Department of Justice’s recent Statement of Interest announcing that Boise, Idaho’s anti-homeless law is flatly unconstitutional and the HUD grant guidelines asking cities to describe “how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness” are a clear signal that at least in these waning days of the Obama administration there is agreement that wasting money is bad policy. 

[1] City of Berkeley, California