Most Americans believe it’s up to local governments to fix the homelessness epidemic, according to a recent Grid/Harris Poll. Is that fair? While it’s far from the only entity that has the power to reduce homelessness, there’s actually quite a bit it can do — especially when it comes to setting priorities.
“Local government plays a really important role in the homelessness continuum. … They play an important role in setting the aim of their community,” said Caitlin LaCroix, a state and local policy expert at Community Solutions.
And it’s not a small majority that put the onus on the local government. Forty-two percent said it should be handled at the local level, while only 14 percent said the federal government should take the lead, with 26 percent saying it’s up to each state’s government.
But it goes both ways. While most say local governments should take the lead on homelessness, city hall is also the first to be blamed if it’s a problem in an area. Nearly three-quarters of Americans agreed with the statement “excessive homelessness is a sign that local government officials aren’t doing enough to support their residents.”
Added to that is the fact that Americans have little faith that their local government will do anything to fix it if they haven’t already. When asked how they expected homelessness to evolve in their area in the next five years, only 17 percent of respondents said it would get better. Roughly 40 percent said it would stay about the same. The group with the bleakest outlook on homelessness in their area: rural Americans.
According to Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author at Education Next, when the modern homelessness epidemic began in the 1980s, it was “seen as mainly a local issue.” But it’s not entirely up to local leaders. In fact, the federal government plays the biggest role when it comes to funding affordable housing through a variety of programs.
“They find it very frustrating that they know the public looks to them first, and yet they feel like they don’t have the powers to adequately respond,” Eide said.
Localities can use funding from their own taxes, community block grants or a federal program, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. LaCroix explained that the federal government allocates funds to continuums of care, geographic entities defined by HUD that oversee jurisdictions varying in size from New York City to the entire state of Texas.
“That being said, they don’t receive direct funding from the federal government for homeless services, so saying that they have a directly funded role is difficult to say,” said LaCroix.
But it’s local governments that set the conditions to actually produce that housing — including zoning rules, tax abatements for builders and reforming the process of getting permits for the new housing.
“I think it will be critical for local governments to make sure that they are creating zoning laws that allow for the construction of the kinds of units that are necessary to house the number of people to meet demand, and currently we are not doing,” said Michael Mitchell, a director of policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative, at a December hearing before the House Financial Services Committee.
The demand for action from a city’s electorate doesn’t seem to be lost on politicians. Mayors across the country campaigned on ending homelessness last year, including Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. And just this week, the city council approved a $50 million fund for Bass to specifically address homelessness.
Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.