For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about homelessness: society’s views of homeless people and their needs, our faulty shelter system, and how we might move toward better solutions. Today, I share an interview with Abby Miller, who works for the Housing and Urban Development Agency in Washington DC, and who authored the thesis I talked about a couple weeks ago. Her unique insights into popular conceptions of homelessness and how they affect policy have truly changed the way I understand home and homeless people. And her work is based on years of on-the-ground research.
In case you find terminology in this interview that you’re unfamiliar with, please consult the Urban Lexicon. I added some definitions pertaining specifically to housing and the federal government. Important disclaimer: All views shared in this interview are Abby’s personal opinions and do not represent the opinions of the Housing and Urban Development Agency.
Q: So, Abby, what have you been up to since finishing your PhD?
A: I’ve been working at HUD. I started out in Office of Strategic Planning and Management, working on HUD’s homelessness goals. Shortly after that, I continued working on those goals during a rotation* to the Philadelphia field office, working in Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. I got to see some of the very real barriers to getting better housing there. Then I came back to DC.
Q: What’s it like working for the Federal Government after operating on the local level during your PhD program?
A: I expected to come here [the Federal Government] and not really find a place for thinking about the stuff that I was thinking about and researching [in Champaign, IL], because I spent so much time with individuals who are really outside of the government funded system, the guys who are not really able to work with transitional housing programs. I saw coming to HUD as […] filling out a different part of the work.
Q: Have you seen any of your ideas being implemented back in Champaign where you did your thesis work?
A: The tent city dissolved while I was working, but I continued with my advocacy and I taught a class that worked with the tent city. It was an iterative class, an action-research course for upper level students to dive into a project. After the tent city dissolved, I had the students building bodies of evidence to make cases to the city council for the types of housing stock that we didn’t have in our community. One of the things we didn’t have was any apartments with a Housing First approach.
Across the US there has been a persistent increase in the amount of permanent supportive housing and a steady to slight decrease in transitional housing, but our community did not follow that trend at all. We had over 400 beds for single men and they all had sobriety requirements. They were getting transitional housing funding from the federal government but the housing was set up like shelters […] There was a total mismatch with what people actually needed —affordable housing and affordable housing with services. So seeing this gap, I worked with my students to put together a report that we pitched to the Champaign and Urbana governments and tried to get some people hooked.
Q: Have you seen any of your ideas being implemented at the federal level?
A: Since I came here, my current boss thinks about space. She thinks about what something feels like. Something [else] I’ve been really encouraged by […] is a Medicaid final rule on home and community-based services. Medicaid has this program that allows states to apply for waivers so that health services can be provided in the home instead of in institutions. In the final rule, they actually define what a home […] is. This is the first time I’ve seen the federal government saying, “A locked door is a home. Freedom from a landlord coming into your space is home.” These are actual qualitative elements of what makes something a home [ …] For me, it was really powerful to read because a lot of the elements they talk about in this are elements that I found people wanting in shelter spaces and not having. I came here hoping that there would be room to exercise my knowledge of design and space, and I think it’s happening. I think we’re getting there.
Q: What do you see as the relationship between local justice work and national policymaking? Where is the best place for social justice activists to engage?
A: I think it depends on your disposition. There is more flexibility at the local level, but larger impact at the federal level. There are certain pieces that should be handled by the localities and other pieces that should be handled by the feds.
In my research, there is one thing that was crystal clear to me: In the six projects I looked across, when the conservative factions of the community said to the people who were thinking more progressively, “We don’t want to do this” or “We don’t want to make this change,” the federal government’s anti-discrimination policies protected the people who did the work. I found that to be a very powerful tool to wield on the local level.
Q: How fast can change occur at the local level versus the national level?
A: I would say it depends on political will as to how fast something gets done. Right now, we have a president who has declared that he wants to end homelessness. That’s the best possible mandate we could have. We can get more done in a progressive environment.
If the federal government keeps its eye on innovative programs they can scale up, but I think the innovation is going to happen on the ground, with the people interacting with individuals.
Q: Is there still a place for homeless shelters in America? Will we ever be able to transition away from them?
A: Champaign is conservative and racially segregated. There’s a strong mindset that “this is the way things are done” and the shift to the idea that we can end homelessness is in direct conflict with the idea that we can ameliorate circumstances. There are some people that will not have their minds changed. I saw way too many shelter and transitional beds, and not enough affordable housing with transitional supports, no employment programs, none of the stuff that’s going to change peoples’ situations. However, I do not profess to understand the workings of larger cities. I think it is probably the more rural, conservative areas that have the mismatch.
The bottom line for me is that we have never made a serious investment in socialized housing in this country. We’re not comfortable with the idea that people are provided with housing because they need it. We look at someone who is homeless differently than someone who is poor and needs housing, like they need treatment. The very miniscule amount of socialized housing that we have now is under fire. There’s not enough of it. Poor people need places to live. They need safe, private homes, whether they find themselves actually homeless or whether they are doubled up. We need more housing and it needs to be affordable to the people who make the least. It’s a broader systemic problem.
Thanks so much to Abby for sharing her perspective and experiences in the field of homelessness.
*The program that Abby works under is called the Presidential Management Fellowship and it involves, among other things, a chance to work in a variety of government offices during “rotations.”