The McKinney-Vento Act was the first major federal legislation addressing homelessness. And while it remains critically important, it's time for a new approach.
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Last month marked twenty-four years since landmark federal homelessness legislation was signed into law. The Act, now known as the McKinney-Vento Act, was the first major federal legislation addressing homelessness. And while it remains critically important, it's time for a new approach.

Since the law was first enacted in 1987, it's been expanded and improved significantly. Funding has gone from $350 million to over $1.9 billion. Policies have shifted to focus more on permanent housing and less on emergency shelter. And federal funding has directly leveraged many more state, local and private resources.

All over the country, thousands of programs funded by the Act help hundreds of thousands of homeless men, women and children each day. Rights created by the McKinney-Vento Act -- such as the right of homeless children to an education -- help homeless people claim better lives and futures. Every day, the rights and resources the McKinney-Vento Act provides make clear that homelessness in America can be solved.

Yet twenty-four years later, it has not been solved. Indeed, homelessness today is at record levels --with dramatic increases across the country, largely fueled by the foreclosure crisis and economic downturn. Families are bearing the brunt of these trends; in major U.S. cities, family homelessness rose by 9 percent in 2010 alone.

The current crisis parallels conditions in the early 1980s that eventually led to the enactment of the McKinney-Vento Act. Large-scale homelessness reappeared for the first time since the Great Depression. Then, as now, families were on the front lines; previously working men and women were losing their grip on housing following unemployment, health crises and loss of public benefits.

But at the time, homelessness was not largely considered a matter for national policy at all. The then-administration considered homelessness a matter for charitable groups or, at most, local government. Indeed, President Reagan, who viewed homelessness as a "lifestyle choice" as opposed to a social problem, signed the McKinney-Vento Act into law in the evening to signal his displeasure.

Strong advocacy won Congressional passage and forced a reluctant president to sign a bill he did not support. The new federal law was intended as an emergency response to an immediate crisis; it was to be followed by long-term solutions, focused primarily on significant increases in federal funding for affordable housing to end homelessness, coupled with new housing protections to prevent homelessness.

Twenty-four years later, we still have not put those long-term solutions in place. But as a result of the McKinney-Vento Act and its subsequent revision and expansion, we have thousands of programs across the country that show how to end and prevent homelessness -- and do it every day. We have laws on the books that protect housing rights and prevent homelessness. But the scale of these efforts is far from adequate.

We also have a plethora of research that makes crystal clear the deleterious effects of not ending homelessness. Studies document that homeless children suffer physical, emotional and academic harm, and that all homeless people suffer disproportionately from illness, poor nutrition and severely truncated life expectancy. We have studies that show homelessness is expensive and that ending and preventing it through housing costs less.

But it's not enough to say we know how to end and prevent homelessness -- and to then make available the resources to do so for a fraction of the homeless population. It's not enough to say that ending and preventing homelessness makes moral and fiscal sense -- and then not do it. We have the data and we have the program models. What's missing are the policies and funding needed to bring those models to scale.

Twenty-four years ago, advocacy helped force a paradigm shift. Homelessness was no longer a "lifestyle choice" or a matter simply for charity. With the enactment of the McKinney-Vento Act, it became a matter of national policy.

Now we need a new paradigm shift. Homelessness cannot be solved by funding a few good programs. Rather, law and policy must ensure that everyone has a safe, affordable place to live. That basic value and principle is a matter of fundamental human rights.

It's time to make those rights real.

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