U.S. Congress Appropriates Funds for the Homeless

With the problem of homelessness in the United States gaining increasing public attention, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act provided a substantial increase in federal funds for emergency support to shelter programs.

Summary of Event

The passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in the summer of 1987 represented the culmination of a decade of debate about homelessness, its causes, and the federal government’s responsibility to respond to the problem. The prominence of the issue in the 1980’s was the result of the visibility of homeless people on the streets of American cities. Homelessness
[kw]U.S. Congress Appropriates Funds for the Homeless (July 22, 1987)
[kw]Congress Appropriates Funds for the Homeless, U.S. (July 22, 1987)
[kw]Funds for the Homeless, U.S. Congress Appropriates (July 22, 1987)
[kw]Homeless, U.S. Congress Appropriates Funds for the (July 22, 1987)
Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (1987)[Stewart B. Mackinney Homeless Assistance]
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[g]United States;July 22, 1987: U.S. Congress Appropriates Funds for the Homeless[06520]
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Snyder, Mitch
McKinney, Stewart B.
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act[Stewart B. Mackinney Homeless]

The homeless of the 1980’s were different, both in the size of their numbers and in their demographics, from those who had traditionally occupied the “skid rows” of large cities. The “new homeless,” although also plagued with alcohol and drug problems, were more likely to be younger and to be members of ethnic or racial minorities. Further, they were more likely to be completely lacking in shelter and employment of any kind. Finally, there were many more women and children among the new homeless.

A 1987 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that there had been a 25 percent increase in the number of families with children seeking shelter. In 1986, New York City provided shelter in welfare hotels for an average of thirty-five hundred families every month. During the 1980’s, families were the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population and, by the end of the decade, constituted approximately 30 percent of the homeless. The visibility and changed nature of the homeless population were largely responsible for the pressure placed on the federal government to respond to the problem.

During the 1986-1987 winter, several events helped motivate Congress to act on emergency housing assistance. A U.S. Conference of Mayors study released the week before Christmas announced a marked increase in the number of people seeking emergency shelter. The study found that a quarter of the demand was not satisfied with the existing provision of shelter and food by private charity groups. It called for Congress to provide federal aid to the overtaxed services of local governments and private groups. The National Coalition for the Homeless released a similar report that winter, demonstrating that families with children were the fastest-growing group among the homeless. To encourage support for legislation, activist Mitch Snyder and actor Martin Sheen Sheen, Martin organized an event titled the Grate American Sleep Out, Grate American Sleep Out which encouraged members of Congress to spend the night on the streets of Washington, D.C. Some did, including Stewart B. McKinney, the ranking minority member of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development and an active supporter of aid to the homeless.

Prior to this period, Congress had allocated some increased aid, through existing housing programs, to the homeless, and in 1982 the Housing and Community Development Subcommittee of the House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs held a series of hearings on the problems of the homeless.

However, in 1986 Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration and Congress argued over the number of homeless and whether that number warranted increased federal aid. Many congressional Democrats also argued that the increasing number of homeless was the result of 70 percent cuts in federal housing programs and tightened eligibility requirements for welfare, which had moved members of the working poor to the ranks of the homeless. In its final report on the McKinney bill, the House subcommittee argued, “In a nation so blessed with natural resources and material wealth, as in the United States, there is no justifiable reason for the Federal Government to abdicate an appropriate role to assist these most needy citizens.”

When the emergency aid package was first introduced in January of 1987, President Reagan threatened to veto the package as unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible. The bill nevertheless passed with broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress (65-8 in the Senate and 301-115 in the House) and was signed into law by the president on July 22, 1987. The bill was named for McKinney, who had died on May 7, 1987, of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), complicated by pneumonia that had resulted from his participation in the Grate American Sleep Out in March.

The McKinney Act appropriated $442 million for homeless assistance in fiscal year 1987 and promised $616 million for 1988. The funds were to be channeled through a number of existing housing programs and provided housing assistance, subsidies for existing private and public shelter programs, funds for rehabilitation of abandoned buildings to provide increased shelter, and help for programs of health care, mental health, and assistance to the disabled serving the homeless. It also created an Interagency Commission on the Homeless, Interagency Commission on the Homeless, U.S. made up of representatives of various federal agencies, with oversight responsibilities for programs assisting the homeless.


Passage of the McKinney Act was important because it acknowledged the extent to which the needs of the homeless in the United States had reached emergency proportions and admitted a federal responsibility to respond to that emergency. In the short term, it certainly helped ease the burden of care that small private shelters throughout the country were experiencing in trying to meet the increased demands for aid. Even its short-term effect, however, was less than its supporters had hoped, because the money authorized in the bill was never fully allocated, a pattern that continued in later years. Spiraling federal budget deficits through the 1980’s made the intentions of the bill increasingly difficult to fulfill. Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (1987)[Stewart B. Mackinney Homeless Assistance]

With its focus on the provision of emergency assistance, the McKinney Act did little to provide any long-term solutions to the problems underlying homelessness. Its emphasis on shelter support meant that there was less attention to addressing the root causes of homelessness or to the provision of larger quantities of stable low-income housing. The problem of homelessness did not disappear as a result of the McKinney Act, but the prominence of the issue of homelessness diminished. A 1990 study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found declining public concern about and support for aiding the homeless. The public had become weary of the issue and demonstrated a marked lack of sympathy for the plight of homeless people. As Congress and the president struggled with a burgeoning federal deficit that made increased funding for any social programs unlikely, the issue faded from the public agenda. Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (1987)[Stewart B. Mackinney Homeless Assistance]

Further Reading

  • Baumohl, Jim, ed. Homelessness in America. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1996. Collection of essays by researchers, social workers, activists, and others examines all aspects of the problem of homelessness in the United States. Chapter 15 is devoted to discussion of the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Belcher, John R., and Frederick A. DiBlasio. Helping the Homeless: Where Do We Go from Here? Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1990. Scholarly work focuses on the impact of the American economic system on homelessness and offers a useful counterpoint to publications that present anecdotal evidence and emphasize the personal stories of the homeless. Argues that homelessness results from economic dislocation and offers policy solutions that address needed changes in the management of the economy. Includes an interesting chapter on homelessness as a global problem.
  • Bingham, Richard D., Roy E. Green, and Sammis B. White, eds. The Homeless in Contemporary Society. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1987. Collection of essays by scholars and public officials looks at causes of homelessness, demographic characteristics of the homeless, and possible policy options to alleviate the problem. Contributors from diverse disciplines present several different viewpoints on the issues.
  • Kozol, Jonathan. Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988. Draws on interviews with residents of New York City’s notorious welfare hotels to present a sympathetic narrative of homeless families. Offers some suggestions for change, but the primary value of this work lies in its compelling portrait of the frustrations and tragedies in the lives of homeless people. Winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award.
  • Kusmer, Kenneth L. Down and Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Traces the history of homelessness in America and describes the people who have made up the homeless population since the colonial era. Includes photographs and index.

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