WILMINGTON — The federal government has a “giant role” in addressing homelessness, said U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio, 15th District) in a recent interview on the matter.
“Most of our housing policies are done at the federal level, not at the state or local level. And almost all of our homelessness money, the McKinney-Vento [Act] money that we spend on homelessness, is federal money,” the congressman told the News Journal.
Stivers is the ranking Republican on the Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance. The subcommittee has jurisdiction over the McKinney-Vento law that deals with homelessness, he said.
In that connection, he said he is working with Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters (D-California, 43rd District), “who cares deeply about homelessness,” said Stivers, in a joint attempt to figure out how to get more dollars for McKinney-Vento funding.
He hopes there will be an agreement because, he said, there’s a need to find some money to help reduce the homelessness problem.
Mental illness is a large problem among the homeless population, said Stivers. Thus, many of the people experiencing homelessness need help for their health condition, as well as assistance to ensure they’re not homeless, he said.
Homelessness is a national issue that’s found in states other than Ohio, he said.
Part of the big picture, said Stivers, is that big urban centers such as Columbus have the homeless coalitions that help get people help, “but in our more rural counties that kind of assistance is harder to find.”
He emphasized preventing homelessness is much less expensive and a better option than responding to it after it takes place.
In that regard, he likes the idea of what’s happening with the Siemer Institute, based in Ohio. They try to stop homelessness before it happens, he said.
According to the institute’s website, client families come to it on the edge of homelessness and in a crisis. “The Siemer Institute promotes two-generation (2-gen) approaches that meet the needs of children and adults simultaneously to foster academic success and break the cycle of poverty.”
He is less of a fan of what’s known as the Housing First approach. According to its advocates, Housing First prioritizes the quick provision of permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which to improve their quality of life.
Related services are part of Housing First interventions, say its supporters. However, those services are not mandated, and people are not coerced into accepting them because client choice is a fundamental tenet of Housing First, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ website.
Stivers said though the approach is called Housing First, it’s become Housing Only. Wrap-around services like job training and mental health assistance and counseling often do not occur, he said. As a result, it doesn’t solve the long-term problem and build capacity, added Stivers.
In fact, Stivers said he thinks Housing First “has become part of the problem.”
He is trying to have youth and children under 18 counted among the homeless. Because of the way HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) defines homelessness, only adults over 18 are counted.
The problem with that, he said, is if you don’t count somebody, then you can’t get them help and aid. A hearing has been held on the subject, but so far the HUD definition of homelessness has not been fixed.
Stivers also has worked on a bill with Mike Turner (R-Ohio, 10th District). It passed the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2019 and would enable youth who are aging out of foster care to get on a waiting list to get housing assistance six months before they turn 18 instead of making them wait until they’re 18 to get on the waiting list.
There continues to be a big problem with military veteran homelessness, said Stivers. He said he’s proud to get an amendment attached just last month to the National Defense Authorization Act aimed at helping homeless veterans.
According to Stivers, most veterans who have problems with homelessness are veterans who don’t qualify for Veterans Affairs benefits because they had an other than honorable discharge or the like.
“And just because somebody had a problem or maybe did something wrong doesn’t mean they should be sentenced to be homeless forever. You know, I’m not going to try to re-characterize their discharges, but I do think we should give them assistance to make sure they’re not homeless,” said the congressman, who has spent over 30 years in the Ohio Army National Guard.
In 2019, he and U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio, 3rd District) secured $20 million for the Family Reunification Program to combat homelessness.
During a special Wilmington City Services Committee session on July 30, Chairperson and City Councilman Nick Eveland listened to the concerns of citizens about homelessness in the city.
“Everyone in attendance was concerned about the homeless; they were concerned about vagrants who choose to be homeless. Some seem to come from other jurisdictions,” Eveland told the News Journal.
Eveland indicated he thinks a majority of concerns from attendees were in regards to minor crimes.
Some attendees spoke about personal experience in encountering who they thought did property damage, stole items, or left trash at the scene.
What he and committee members took away from the meeting were four distinct areas of concern:
• Homelessness — people who are genuinely down on their luck due to no fault of their own.
• Rise in drug abuse
• Mental illness
“A lot of research needs to be done,” Eveland said. “We need to see what’s available. We need to get an idea of what we need to address the issues.”
John Hamilton contributed to this report. Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.