A Budget Deal for the Homeless Too

With the government shutdown behind us—at least for now—automatic budget cuts, also known as “sequestration,” are once again coming to the fore. If Congress doesn’t act on passing a budget deal by Dec. 13, additional draconian cuts will be implemented. This would deepen the already alarming crisis of homelessness unfolding in cities across the United States.

The vast majority of Americans may not have felt the effects of sequestration, but its regimented cuts could be the tipping point for families on the verge of homelessness. At the same time, the reduction of federal resources for nonprofits would diminish the restorative effects that nonprofits have in providing the housing support and job training to improve these families’ situations.

The most devastating effect on the homeless is the cuts to the Section 8 rental subsidy program, which, for many affected by job loss and economic hardship, fills the gap between affordable housing and a homeless shelter. These vouchers are crucial for people at the poverty line, but they also give dignity to families for whom the loss of a job or a disability would otherwise have sent them crashing into homelessness. While sequestration aims to reduce the size and cost of government, the elimination of Section 8 vouchers has the opposite effect.177429971

Take New York City as a case in point. The availability of Section 8 vouchers for families in shelters was eliminated in 2004 and new, transitional rental subsidies were cut in 2012, leaving a finite number of vouchers. New York is currently experiencing historic levels of homelessness: On any given night in 2013, 51,000 people, including 22,000 children, live in homeless shelters. Ten years ago, 38,245 lived in shelters nightly, including 16,778 children. This doesn’t include those who sleep on the street, are in other shelters for domestic abuse or are runaway or unaccompanied youth.

The reduction in affordable housing subsidies also accelerated the need for shelters in New York, where costs of homeless services have soared by 68 percent in the last ten years to $908 million. When you consider that the annual cost of a shelter is $32,500 per person or $50,000 per family—and that of a jail cell per individual is $168,000—the logic of reinstating vouchers or creating a new rent subsidy is compelling.

Supportive housing and counseling can transform lives at a relatively affordable cost. With the help of public-private partnerships and committed donors, we have been able to provide our residents with clean, affordable apartments, support with job searches and counseling for ongoing sobriety and family reunification—at a cost of less than $15,000 per individual per year.

We can look to the decline in homelessness among military veterans—down more than 24 percent between 2009 and 2013—as a successful model. The issue has won commitment from the top, including President Obama and Eric Shinseki, U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs, who vowed to eliminate veterans’ homelessness by 2015. Special Section 8 vouchers that help veterans get affordable housing were spared the budget cuts.

With state, local and federal subsidies, and other homeless prevention programs at risk of cuts, our government needs to consider not only the costs of running these programs, but the untapped, lost potential among those falling into homelessness if they are cut.

With the same leadership and conviction shown our veterans, we as a nation must consider the value of making investments in our citizens’ futures instead of cutting them to the bone.

Tori Lyon, Wharton, class of 1989, is executive director of the Jericho Project, a 29-year-old nonprofit with the goal of ending homelessness at its roots. Prior to becoming executive director in 2005, Lyon held the role of associate executive director since 1999. Previously, she was the grants manager at Bailey House, a supportive housing program for people living with HIV/AIDS.

This article was first published in Wharton magazine.