Last week, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness released a new report called Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. HUD Secretary and USICH chairman Shaun Donovan touted the strategic plan as “the most far-reaching and ambitious plan to end homelessness in our history”. The plan aims to end homelessness among veterans and the chronically homeless in five years, and among children and families in ten.
That is certainly a lofty goal, and makes one wonder what this strategic plan does to end a problem that has probably plagued mankind as long as there have been cities, and private property. What does the Opening Doors strategic plan do differently? And, how does it make the federal government more involved in homelessness prevention, which is typically treated as a local issue?
In her statement at the release of the report, USICH Executive Director Barbara Poppe addressed this issue directly. “Communities across the country have stressed the need for federal leadership to prevent and end homelessness, For the first time, the nation will have goals, strategies, and measureable outcomes that will guide us toward a fiscally prudent government response. Local, state, and federal governments cannot afford to invest in anything but the most evidence-based, cost-effective strategies.”
Instead of a large spending program, or creating yet another agency, the strategic plan examines the primary causes of homelessness, and details ways that federal agencies can collaborate better with state and local agencies and nonprofits to aggressively and effectively combat homelessness. These strategies are broken up by the ten different objectives of the plan.
To give a sense of how this reads, here is the second objective of the report: “Strengthen the capacity of public and private organizations by increasing knowledge about collaboration, homelessness, and successful interventions to prevent and end homelessness.” The federal agencies that can help out with this objective: Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, etc. Virtually all of them. The specific strategies identified are no more specific: “Collaborate on and compile research to better understand best practices, the cost-effectiveness of various interventions, metrics to measure outcomes, and the gaps in research. Identify and fill in gaps in the body of knowledge.”
I am not alone in finding the report at once promising and vague, at the same time. Neil Donovan, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, wrote about the report on the Huffington Post, and has similar concerns. While he repeatedly congratulates and commends the USICH report, he points out that “many of the methods outlined are vague and without firm commitment to allocate funds and implement strategies, there will certainly be continued need for further discussion and action to address this national priority.” He goes on to say that the plan must not “create a double standard and hold itself to the same strict standard that it holds for local communities: clear numeric goals, timetables, and identify funding and implementing bodies to ensure they move from planning to action.”
But what is refreshing about the report is that it seeks to break down silos that have traditionally separated agencies from one another, and from state and local authorities. In describing the logic behind their first objective — “Provide and promote collaborative leadership at all levels of government and across all sectors to inspire and energize Americans to commit to preventing and ending homelessness” — the authors write that during their public input phase, there was an “extensive outpouring…that federal agencies needed to ‘break down the silos’ and organize federal resources together with local and state resources.” So while the plan is vague, there is a promising guiding principle: that government needs to be more flexible in order to meet the needs of the people.
Will a plan that has little money to back up somewhat vague plans end homelessness entirely in the next decade? In a recession? No, probably not. But it’s encouraging to see stodgy, rigid federal agencies reconsider their purpose, and think bigger. That was, after all, Obama’s promise to voters. It seems the agencies are responding to the mandate. It’s too bad that Congress is in charge of where the money goes.