A bipartisan group of Senators has proposed an $800 million emergency fund to help communities address family and youth homelessness as advocates fear a potentially disastrous wave of instability as coronavirus continues to hamper the economy.
“Hundreds of thousands of families will be at risk” of eviction as local moratoria expire this summer, said Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare. “For many, the only resource available will be foster care placement. Family separation is more expensive than the approach in this bill.”
The Emergency Family Stabilization Act – introduced this week by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) – would pump flexible cash mostly into the hands of existing grantees at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), an agency that handles child welfare and other family assistance programs but does very little in the housing space.
The main idea is to act fast by leaning heavily on existing relationships – 80 percent of the funding would flow to existing grantees of the agency, which include state and local government, schools, nonprofit organizations and tribal partners. ACF will have 45 days to get money out the door to existing grantees, and 130 days to get funding in the hands of new grantees.
It sets the following priorities for using the emergency funds:
- Health and safety needs (PPE, buying food, mental health services)
- Housing assistance (eviction prevention, utility bills, motel stays)
- Transportation costs
- Child care
- Education, training, and employment-related needs
- Help for pregnant women and children birth to age five
- Staffing for outreach, case management, trafficking prevention, and housing navigation
- Helping people access their stimulus payments, unemployment compensation and other benefits
- Targeted services for unaccompanied homeless youth and young families
- Positive youth development services
The proposal to park the emergency fund within the Department of Health and Human Services (of which ACF is a major branch) appears to be a fairly stunning rebuke of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While ACF does manage the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth program, HUD’s Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs (SNAPS) has a much larger presence on homelessness.
But bill authors, in a letter to Senate leadership, said that “despite their great vulnerability, most children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness are not eligible for homelessness assistance” offered by HUD, including previously appropriated coronavirus funding.
“Even before the coronavirus there was a gap in what children, youth and families experiencing homelessness needed and the resources available,” said Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth. “The pandemic has only widened the gap and made it more clear to policymakers.”
Advocates have been pleading with SNAPS “to turn its attention towards the alarming rate of homelessness among families and youth to no avail for over twenty years,” White said. The bill is an indication that further efforts to engage the office, “even in the face of a pandemic, is an exercise in futility.”
HUD did launch a national initiative in 2019 that connects youth aging out of foster care with access to public housing. Foster Youth to Independence was unveiled by Secretary Ben Carson last July in Milwaukee.
“About 20,000 youngster age out of foster care each year, an about a quarter of those, sometime in the next four years will become homeless,” said Carson, at the Milwaukee event. “This is an opportunity to intervene there very significantly.”
The likeliest path to passage for the $800 million fund, as with anything at the moment, is if both chambers agree to a “phase four” stimulus package to help address the social and economic effects of the coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 Americans.
“These interventions will help ensure that prolonged homelessness does not result from the coronavirus outbreak, and that we protect the futures of some of our most vulnerable children, youth, and families,” said the bill authors, in their letter to Senate leadership. “We urge you to prioritize their needs in the next supplemental package.”
John Kelly can be reached at [email protected]