McGovern, House group seek help for unhoused in Biden budget

Homeless advocates check inside tents at McPherson Square in Washington D.C. in February 2023, prior to the clearing of the homeless encampment by the National Park Service.

Homeless advocates check inside tents at McPherson Square in Washington D.C. in February 2023, prior to the clearing of the homeless encampment by the National Park Service. AP File Photo/Patrick Semansky

Workers clear a homeless encampment at McPherson Square in Washington D.C. in February 2023.

Workers clear a homeless encampment at McPherson Square in Washington D.C. in February 2023. AP File Photo/Patrick Semansky

JIM McGOVERN

JIM McGOVERN

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-09-2024 5:46 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A call for an increase in federal money to support homeless services and programs related to substance use disorders, and for keeping unhoused individuals from being targeted by federal law enforcement agencies, is coming from the House Democratic Caucus Poverty Task Force, vice chaired by U.S. Rep. James McGovern.

With a growing number of people experiencing homelessness, based on the 2023 Housing and Urban Development Point-in-Time Count that found more than 650,000 people across the country experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2023 — a 12% increase over 2022 — the congressional task force is appealing to President Joe Biden to address the problem in the fiscal year 2025 budget request he will make to Congress.

“We urge your administration to support unhoused populations through constructive, permanent solutions of increased funding for homeless services, substance use disorders programs, and community-driven alternatives in the fiscal year 2025 president’s budget request,” wrote members of the task force, which is chaired by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.

“We are eager to work with your administration to develop comprehensive protocols and guidelines for federal agencies, state and local governments, and service providers to reduce police interactions with homeless individuals.”

In addition to McGovern and Lee, the others signing are Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness and the Poverty Task Force’s vice chair on criminalization; and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., ranking member of the Education and Workforce Development Committee.

In their appeal for funding, they write that people experiencing homelessness who don’t go to shelters are being targeted by law enforcement sweeps and even arrested for living in public spaces when they have no alternative, a pattern of criminalization of unhoused people.

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By 2019, about three-quarters of cities had anti-camping laws, more than 60% had laws against loitering, and more than half had laws restricting living in vehicles.

The letter cites specific examples of violence by federal agencies, such as a May 2023 incident in which U.S. Forest Service police officers shot and paralyzed Brooks Roberts, an unhoused man living in a camper in the Payette National Forest in Idaho, during a raid coordinated with Bureau of Land Management officers. There was also a National Park service raid last February on McPherson Square in Washington D.C., where 50 tents had been set up, and people there were arrested, limiting their ability to connect with outreach providers for shelter and resources.

“Criminalizing homelessness and using law enforcement to punish the unhoused is not only the most expensive and least effective way of addressing the problem, but this approach also creates arrest records, fines and fees that stand in the way of people in transition securing jobs or affordable housing and discourages organizations that provide support to the unhoused,” the members of Congress wrote.

Specifically, they wrote, “Nongovernmental and community-based organizations play a large role in providing food security and supplies, but have been cited and criminalized for providing support to the unhoused.”

The need for more funding to address homelessness was raised by the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness last May during a regional gathering at Holyoke Community College. There, local officials called for greater state investment as homelessness rose to a five-year high at the same time resources are being diminished.

Like the national Point-in-Time Count, the Jan. 26, 2023 survey in the region showed 3,305 people were homeless in the four westernmost state counties, comprising 2,288 families and 1,017 individuals, an increase of 24% over two years. Hampshire County had 255 homeless people and Franklin County had 110.

The network released its housing justice platform, which includes preventing displacement, preserving existing affordable housing, creating more affordable housing and meeting the needs of people who are unhoused.

McGovern said that prioritizing anti-poverty programs in the federal budget would help tackle some of the funding challenges faced when looking at getting people into homes, including in his district.

“The president’s budget serves as the starting point for the congressional budget cycle, which is why we are urging him to prioritize investments in community-driven, holistic solutions that address the underlying challenges unhoused people face, instead of a law enforcement response that has led to the criminalization of unhoused people across the country,” McGovern said. “Criminalizing homelessness doesn’t solve the problem. It creates additional burdens for those trying to find housing, employment and return to a more stable life. It’s vital that the president prioritizes this issue in his budget to get us back on the right track. Doing so would lead to more political will to address this problem in western Massachusetts and across the country.”

In addition to the raw numbers, the members of Congress note that communities of color experience higher rates of homelessness, with nearly four in 10 people experiencing homelessness identifying as Black African American or African, and about 28% of homeless individuals identifying as Hispanic or Latino.

“We commend the administration for striving to reduce homelessness rates, but with sharply rising numbers of homeless populations, there must be a comprehensive federal response that takes into account the multitude of challenges affecting unhoused communities and individuals in order to realistically reach this laudable goal,” they wrote.

The letter goes on: “Comprehensive housing reform must be led by your administration, and we urge increased funding for homeless services in your FY25 budget request. Additional funding for substance use disorder programs and community-driven alternatives must be prioritized over law enforcement responses to the unhoused crisis. This includes fully funding community health centers; expanding access to syringe services and harm reduction supplies and programs; and allowing safe consumption spaces.

“The administration should also make homelessness a public health priority and engage the CDC in efforts to support these critical programs. We also urge you to implement federal protections and guidelines for community-based organizations who are criminalized and fined for passing out food, water and supplies. Your administration must also pursue a housing supply strategy outside the appropriations process.”