By Gretchen Grant
Homeless people and their advocates packed the community room of a District women’s shelter on a recent day, anxious to learn about changes to a landmark federal initiative that has helped sustain homeless programs for more than two decades.
When President Barack Obama signed the Homeless Emergency and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act in 2009, he reauthorized and also transformed a law that has provided federal money for homeless shelters and other programs since homelessness was first recognized as a national crisis in the 1980s.
The old law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed and signed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, endured for years without major changes. But as attendees to the March 30 workshop at N Street Village learned, the HEARTH Act takes a new look at federal policy regarding homelessness, stressing programs that promote prevention and the speedy rehousing of homeless people; consolidating U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant programs and redefining homelessness itself. The Act represents a seachange in federal policy regarding homelessness, and one that will endure, experts believe.
“I think we’re going to have this for a long time,” said Norm Suchar, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), who began the workshop by outlining some of the ways homeless programs are being renamed and revised.
For one example, under the HEARTH Act, the Emergency Shelter Grants Program, which for years has provided homeless persons with basic shelter and essential supportive services, as well as funding for the operational costs of homeless shelters, is getting a new name and a new focus.
The Emergency Solutions Grants Program will continue to help states, cities and counties pay for shelters but will place a new emphasis upon short-term homelessness prevention assistance for people at imminent risk of losing their housing. In addition, three continuum of care programs, which provide funding for a range of longer-term services to homeless people, including supportive housing and rehabilitative housing, will be consolidated under the HEARTH Act.
The HEARTH Act will still include all of the eligible activities from the three programs that make up the continuum of care, but it will also provide more flexibility for mixing and matching eligible activities. Re-housing services will get added attention. Additional emphasis will be placed upon the success of the programs in reducing the length of homeless episodes, reducing recidivism back into homelessness and reducing the number of people who become homeless.
The HEARTH Act also expands the number of people eligible for homeless assistance, effectively redefining homelessness in a way that advocates have hoped for over the years. Under the HEARTH Act, Emergency Solutions Grants will be available to people that are at risk of becoming homeless and not just those who are already homeless.
All programs that will be serving the homeless will include people who will be losing their housing within 14 days and lack resources or support, as well as people who have been constantly moving and are likely to continue due to a disability or barriers.In addition, up to 10 percent of continuum of care funds can now serve families that are doubled-up or living in hotels.