Trump's 2018 budget will dismantle safety net for the poor and disabled
© Getty Images

Benjamin Franklin’s classic adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is highly relevant to today’s homeless problem. While it remains important to assist street and shelter dwelling homeless people to obtain stable housing, preventing homelessness spares individuals and families the pain of losing a home and the trauma of street and shelter living. And it benefits neighborhood stability, quality of life, and contributes to the best use of scarce public dollars.

The Trump Administration 2018 federal budget proposal threatens to dismantle the nation’s safety net for the poor and disabled. Included are cuts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s affordable housing and homeless assistance programs, Medicaid, and the innovative federal homelessness prevention policy of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). Service reductions resulting from these budget cuts would increase the number of people falling into homelessness in communities across the country.

The assault on the nation’s safety net and homeless and housing policy appears oblivious of Franklin’s sage advice. Protecting the safety net and helping households at high risk of homelessness to avoid housing loss are critically important in preventing and ending homelessness.


Here’s how: 

Protecting the safety net 

Public policies that increase the development of more affordable housing, preserve disability entitlements, or expand subsidized housing would benefit a wide swath of very low-income people, expanding the safety net and reducing the risk of homelessness.

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program is a major source of federal housing assistance to individuals and households living at or below 30 percent of an area’s median income. The tenant who receives a housing choice voucher pays 30 percent of the cost of a private market dwelling, while the program covers the remainder of the rent costs up to a maximum amount. The Section 8 program currently operates as a lottery, as funding for the program falls far short of providing rental assistance to all who may need it. If a housing subsidy is made an entitlement for those living in poverty, it could reduce the risk of homelessness.

By preventing homelessness, a subsidy also promises to save public dollars. In 2016, New York State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi proposed a rent subsidy for families on public assistance that would enable them to stay in their homes by bridging the gap between the typical rent allotment and usual fair market rents. The annual cost for the rent subsidy plan is about $11,000 for a family of three, one-fourth the cost of a year in a homeless shelter.

Help for those on the brink of homelessness

The presence of homelessness can occur for a variety of reasons, an impending eviction, job loss, or a behavioral health problem. The recession of 2008 prompted the Obama Administration to establish the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP), a three-year initiative as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

Intended to serve people on the brink of homelessness, the ARRA provided short- and longer-term rental assistance, housing relocation, and stabilization services including mediation, credit counseling, security and utility deposits, utility payments, moving cost assistance, and case management.  When ARRA funding ended, the Homelessness Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH) established the continuation of homeless prevention through the Emergency Solutions Grant program.

New York City developed a homelessness prevention program, known as Homebase, in 2004, applying many of the elements that would later be incorporated into HPRP. The Homebase program, initially targeted at family households, consists of neighborhood-based centers designed to serve community residents at risk of losing their housing, thus preventing an entry into the city’s shelter system.

Eligible householders are assigned a case manager who addresses the immediate threat to housing loss and develops a sustainable plan for housing stability. Service plans, developed in collaboration with and tailored to the needs of the householder, involve direct case management services, tenant and landlord mediation, employment assistance, legal services, mental health and substance abuse services, and short-term financial assistance.  Evaluation of Homebase revealed that the program reduced entries into the shelter system.

Eviction prevention for people with disabilities

A program to prevent homelessness among people with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities threatened with eviction was developed in Massachusetts. The Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) is a collaborative effort of the state housing authority, the Massachusetts Housing Court, and regional service providers. The Housing Court generates referrals of pending evictions involving disabled people to a TPP clinician, who functions as a neutral intermediary between the landlord and the disabled tenant. Individuals eligible for the TPP program must have a disability that is directly related to a lease violation.

Under the Fair Housing Law, a disabled tenant in this situation has the right to a reasonable accommodation, allowing the court to delay eviction proceedings until an accommodation can be established. Reasons for the eviction are then evaluated, a plan for needed services is developed, and adherence to the recommended plan is monitored. Work on a case may require that the TPP clinician interact with an array of community providers, such as local housing authorities, property managers, and income-support and legal services, in the development of a service plan. If the tenancy cannot be preserved, the TPP clinician assists the individual to find more appropriate housing.

Citino and Glasgow’s descriptive study of 486 closed cases revealed that stable housing was achieved through either preservation of the existing housing or a move to more appropriate housing in 82 percent of cases

Prevention is key to ending homelessness

Homelessness prevention has been an important new tool in federal homeless policy.  In the period between 2010 and 2016, this comprehensive policy initiative, focused on both the literally homeless and those threatened with housing loss, contributed to a 27 percent reduction in chronic homelessness, a 20 percent reduction in family homelessness, and a 47 percent reduction in homelessness among veterans.

The proposed cuts in funding of safety net and homeless and housing support programs threaten to reverse this trend. This cannot be allowed to happen. Rather than risk increasing homelessness, let’s prevent it and end this plague on this shining “city upon a hill.” 

Carol Caton, a Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project, is a professor on the faculty of psychiatry and public health at the Columbia University Medical Center. Her book “The Open Door: Homelessness and Severe Mental Illness in the Era of Community Treatment,” is a new release from Oxford University Press.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.