Here's how Congress can help address the homelessness crisis

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Experts say the time to pass legislation is now, while Democrats have the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress.

In the midst of a mounting homelessness crisis that only worsened in 2020 before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say now is the perfect time for Congress to enact strong legislative measures to help people who are homeless.

In 2020, there were over 580,000 unhoused Americans, according to the website Statista, with the past two years seeing a sharp uptick in numbers.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition's vice president of public policy, Sarah Saadian, told Slate last week that President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan contained strong measures to prevent and solve housing instability in America: "This is the best opportunity we have to make a big dent in homelessness."

The $1.9 trillion plan contains measures to help the homeless in several ways, allotting $21.6 billion in emergency rental assistance to low-income people and $5 billion in housing vouchers for individuals in danger of eviction. It also contains $5 billion allocated for HOME grants that are given to cities and counties to provide supportive housing structures to their local homeless communities.

Several bills that would address the homelessness crisis have also been introduced in recent months in Congress.

Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) in January introduced the Homeless Veterans with Children Reintegration Act, which would "direct the Secretary of Labor to prioritize the provision of services to homeless veterans with dependent children in carrying out homeless veterans reintegration programs."

Research from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that some 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and that veterans are at an increased risk of experiencing housing instability.

Another bill, the bipartisan Emergency Family Stabilization Act, was reintroduced in February by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV).

The bill, S.220, would create a new grant program within the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, to provide $800 million in flexible emergency funding to agencies that help underserved groups most impacted by homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, including those in rural and tribal areas.

"Now, with the added difficulties of the pandemic, more and more families are facing homelessness and shelters across the state are struggling with significant financial strain," Murkowski said in a statement. "At a time with so much uncertainty, children and families shouldn’t have the added concerns of not knowing if they will have a warm, safe place to sleep."

But advocates for the homeless say there is more Congress must do, and now, while Democrats are in control of the House, the Senate, and the White House.

Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told the American Independent Foundation that his organization is urging Congress to expand funding for homelessness assistance grants. While funding was increased from $2.77 billion to $3 billion last year, Berg says he hopes to see a 10% increase in grant funding for fiscal year 2022.

"This is an absolutely opportune time to make overdue investments in housing and homelessness," Berg said, adding,

[Biden's] platform sets out important markers, including making rental assistance available through the Housing Choice Voucher program so that every eligible household gets the help they need immediately, rather than being placed on a waiting list. Other proposed measures include increased supply of affordable housing, providing tax incentives for affordable housing construction, reducing veteran homelessness, expanding supportive housing, and ensuring housing protections for the LGBTQ community.

Berg said the Biden administration has committed to the philosophy of "Housing First," working to get unhoused individuals into housing immediately, without conditions or requirements.

Eric Samuels, president and CEO of the Texas Homeless Network, told the American Independent Foundation, "Because there is a Democratic majority in both houses I think there is a greater chance that legislation will be filed for programs for people experiencing homelessness ... it's more likely to pass."

Samuels said federal decriminalization of offenses like panhandling and camping in public places would go a long way toward solving the crisis.

"The overcriminalization of homelessness in general is definitely detrimental," he said. "There are people that, they have records with the justice system before they're even adults, and when you have that criminal history, that doesn't help you get a job, get housing, get assistance."

Samuels said Congress could also take action to ensure city and local governments are actually able to use the funding allocated to their state under the American Rescue Plan to convert hotels and other facilities into supportive housing for the homeless. He noted that legislatures in some states, such as Texas, are stalling and not releasing the money to the local governments that would implement such programs.

Legislation should also be enacted to change zoning and use laws nationwide, Samuels said. He noted that many areas are zoned just for single-family homes and not for multifamily housing: "One of the ways we can increase affordable housing is by requiring changes in land use codes and changes in local policy."

"The number one thing that Congress could do would be to work to expand our rental assistance opportunities for every eligible household, and expand and preserve the supply of rental homes that are affordable for people with the lowest incomes," he added.

Legislation to expand access to mental health care and ensure that workers receive a living wage would also help prevent homelessness, Samuels said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.