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  • The Center for Rural Homelessness

The Alarming Impact of Federal Government Shutdowns on Homeless Programming

Jarrett James Lash, Co-Founder & Policy Director

September 19, 2023

As if it was Groundhog Day, we are standing at the precipice of yet another federal government shutdown. In the annals of American governance, few spectacles elicit as much collective frustration and disbelief as federal government shutdowns. These episodes of political brinkmanship, typically over budgetary disputes and partisan agendas, disrupt the regular functioning of government agencies, inflicting collateral damage upon society's most vulnerable. Among the countless victims of these protracted impasses are the homeless, for whom the already tenuous lifeline of government assistance is severed, compounding their struggles and deepening the chasm of inequality.


One need not delve far into the archives to find poignant examples of how federal government shutdowns disrupt homeless programming. In the arena of fiscal responsibility and local self-reliance, federal government shutdowns stand out as stark reminders of the fragility of our centralized systems. While such shutdowns have become emblematic of political gridlock and partisan bickering, they also illuminate a crucial question: What happens to those in need when the federal funding spigot is turned off?


The most memorable instance in recent memory is the 35-day shutdown that spanned from December 2018 to January 2019. During this period, numerous programs aimed at alleviating homelessness were rendered impotent, with the consequences felt most acutely at local levels.


In 2019, Affordable Housing Finance published that roughly 7,000 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development employees were furloughed as a result of the partial government shutdown. Of them, the article notes that one HUD employee, Larry Hirsch’s, furlough prevented him from continuing his daily task of grant evaluation and monitoring. Specifically, Mr. Hirsch managed “grants for groups that help the homeless and working on the Continuum of Care program.”


The shutdown’s chilling effect on nonprofit organizations and shelters that depend on federal grants and contracts to operate is well noted. Without these crucial funds, shelters across the nation faced staff shortages, reduced hours of operation, and even the threat of closure. As homeless populations swelled during the harsh winter months, many found themselves without the refuge they so desperately needed.


Furthermore, the interruption of federal funding disrupted efforts to address contributors to homelessness, such as mental health services and addiction treatment programs. Organizations working on long-term solutions to homelessness were left in limbo, as federal grant applications languished unanswered and research projects stalled. The ripple effects of such disruptions undermine the prospect of us reducing homelessness in our society.


During the 2018-2019 shutdown, many nonprofits found themselves grappling with severe funding shortages, jeopardizing housing assistance for thousands of vulnerable individuals and families. Section 8 vouchers, a lifeline for many, faced delays and potential cancellations due to the uncertainty surrounding federal funding. This cruel game of political brinkmanship put countless Americans on the precipice of homelessness.


A sobering revelation from an NBC article revealed that federal contracts for about 1,150 government-funded properties, housing low-income renters, expired during the shutdown. These properties were part of a federal Section 8 program known as Project-Based Rental Assistance, subsidizing rent and utilities for 1.2 million low-income families, many of whom are elderly or disabled. Such disruptions place these vulnerable families at risk of eviction and delay critical repairs, further compounding the challenges faced by those at the highest risk of experiencing homelessness. Had the shutdown continued, a HUD statement shared that, “about 500 more contracts [would have] expire[d] in January and 550 in February.”


The recurring theme in these episodes is clear: federal government shutdowns dismantle the safety nets carefully woven to catch those on the brink of homelessness. While it is undeniable that government shutdowns take a toll on homeless programming, it is equally vital to maintain a perspective that emphasizes the need for fiscal responsibility and sustainable governance. The ballooning national debt, coupled with ongoing budgetary disputes, underscores the importance of prudent financial management. Government shutdowns may be a consequence of ideological clashes, but they are also a manifestation of the need to find common ground on matters of fiscal responsibility.


Our unhoused neighbors deserve better than to be pawns in political chess matches. The imperative of uninterrupted funding for homeless programming transcends partisan divides and calls for a more profound commitment to the welfare of our fellow citizens. We must scrutinize these shutdowns as more than just disruptions of government operations; we must see them for what they are — corrosive threats to the dignity and well-being of our most vulnerable populations. In the pursuit of a just and compassionate society, we can ill afford to allow such disruptions to persist.


Federal government shutdowns serve as wake-up calls, urging us to rethink our approach to homelessness programming. When we tether our local efforts to the whims of distant policymakers, we expose ourselves to unnecessary vulnerabilities. The predictable outcome is that, during these periods of political intransigence, the most vulnerable among us bear the brunt of the fallout. It is incumbent upon us to champion solutions that emphasize community resilience and self-reliance. By doing so, we can ensure that homelessness programming remains steadfast, responsive, and resilient, irrespective of the political winds blowing in Washington, D.C.


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