The Forgotten History of the Congressman Who Sacrificed His Life to Fight Homelessness
On the evening of March 3, 1987, a group of homeless advocates, Congressmen, and celebrities convened on the sidewalks near Capitol Hill to bear witness to the homelessness epidemic that had erupted across the country. Experts point to the 1980s as the genesis of modern homelessness, as cuts to low-income housing programs and changes like the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals led to a surge in the population of Americans experiencing homelessness.
Yet in 1987, there was no serious federal money to address homelessness. A federal response to the problem would have undermined President Reagan’s goal of rolling back America’s social safety net, after all.
But Rep. Stewart McKinney, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, knew that homelessness was an issue that Congress could no longer ignore. “He cared a great deal about the homeless,” Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, told ThinkProgress. In fact, he was the first Republican on Capitol Hill willing to go public about a need for a federal initiative for the homeless.
So it was in 1987 that McKinney and other congressmen crafted a landmark piece of legislation — originally known as the Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act, later renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — that finally took action to fight homelessness from a national level. The McKinney Act created more than a dozen programs that provide homeless services, with another $1 billion in funding for things like emergency shelters, job training, and housing vouchers.