Enhanced Federal Funding Is Helping Cities Address Homelessness
Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) are allowing cities and states to invest in long-term recovery from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Because people experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, many jurisdictions are using ARPA funds to enhance programs and systems that make bouts of homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring. Already, federal funds have helped connect more than 200,000 households to housing through initiatives using a Housing First strategy. In November 2021, the National League of Cities (NLC) hosted its City Summit, during which one panel discussed such efforts from federal and local perspectives. Panelists included Casey Thomas, a member of the Dallas City Council; Mark Salinas, a member of the Hayward City Council in California; and Helene Schneider, a regional coordinator at the U.S. Interagency Council of Homelessness (USICH). The discussion was moderated by Lauren Lowery, NLC’s director of housing and community development.
Building From a Solid Foundation
ARPA includes funds for cities to build affordable housing, combat food insecurity, increase access to health care, and mitigate the consequences of unemployment — all of which, agreed panelists, are issues bound up with homelessness. Panelists also identified ARPA’s flexible funding as key to supporting the unique needs and approaches of each jurisdiction. Panelists described how jurisdictions are using ARPA funding to augment ongoing activities and best practices.
Salinas discussed how Hayward’s housing navigation center, which connects people experiencing homelessness with housing and services, was able to expand capacity quickly thanks to ARPA funding. The center increased both the number of available beds and the length of time people can stay in shelter while also expanding the city’s housing portfolio through a motel conversion. Thomas reported that in Dallas, significant prepandemic efforts to develop a “four-track” approach to ending homelessness served as a robust starting point for investing ARPA funds. That approach includes increasing shelter capacity, providing heating and cooling stations during periods of extreme weather, creating incentives for landlords to rent to people who have experienced homelessness, and funding permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing programs. These efforts are coordinated through the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.
Centering Collaboration and Equity
The panelists agreed that, across all levels, close, collaborative relationships are essential to finding solutions to homelessness. Although the federal government can provide funds and offer technical expertise, said Schneider, the designs of large-scale programs addressing homelessness are best informed by knowledge gained from the bottom up — from local agencies working on the ground, who, in turn, are including people with lived experience of homelessness in their decisionmaking. In Dallas, the city and county have combined new ARPA resources with private philanthropic funds and vouchers from the city’s public housing agency to expand rapid rehousing, according to Thomas. ARPA funds have also supported the acquisition and conversion of hotels and other facilities into housing in the city. In Hayward, Salinas emphasized the importance of collaborating with schools, whose frequent contact with children makes them ideally suited for detecting families’ struggles early on, along with other less typical partners, such as the public park system or fish and wildlife service.
Schneider said that these partnerships are the foundation for achieving a core goal: “that everyone should have a place to call home.” The panelists agreed on the importance of ensuring that enhanced funding from ARPA (along with all government services generally) be deployed in pursuit of the goal of ending homelessness, with a focus on equity. Equity is especially important, Schneider pointed out, because of the significant gaps in both resources and experiences of homelessness that cut across racial lines. Thomas and Salinas described efforts their respective city councils have taken to include equity as a formal goal of city programs.
Negative pandemic outcomes have fallen disproportionately on historically marginalized groups, particularly people experiencing homelessness. Funding from ARPA is enabling jurisdictions to expand prepandemic efforts aimed at eliminating or reducing the experience of homelessness. As the panelists noted, building on existing strategies, fostering robust partnerships, and centering equity have been crucial to past successes and remain central to deploying the enhanced funding enabled by ARPA.