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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

Expert on ending homelessness shares ideas for policy change

January 16, 2017

Burnes Center on Poverty & Homelessness

Some 40 million Americans have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, said Donald Burnes, PhD, but negative attitudes about homelessness continue to stand in the way of solutions.

"For most of us, the only people we see who are experiencing homelessness are either the folks who are flying cardboard signs on street corners, or people who are laying on sidewalks and in doorways. And unfortunately, what that does is to simply reinforce negative stereotypes. Those folks represent 15 to 20 percent of the people experiencing homelessness. The vast majority are people who are invisible," said Burnes—scholar-in-residence and founder of the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at the DU Graduate School of Social Work—in a November 2016 interview with KGNU Radio in Boulder, Colorado. (Listen to the full interview).

Negative stereotypes make it difficult to develop the constituency necessary for political commitment, explains Burnes, whose 30-year career has spanned direct services, research and advocacy for people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

Tough Problem, Bold Solutions
Children who are homeless may lack a place to do homework, don't get enough sleep and are at risk of falling behind in school, Burnes noted, and that leads to other issues down the road. One possible solution includes school districts assisting children who are homeless, Burnes said.

Potential solutions also include shifting the allocation of some $250 billion in federal housing subsidies. Currently, Burnes said, only 20 percent of federal subsidies go to low-income renters, while 80 percent are directed to high-income homeowners, most often through mortgage interest deductions. "People who need it the most, get the least. People who need it the least, get the most, in terms of federal housing subsidies," said Burnes, editor of the 2016 book Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven't, How We Can. Reducing the mortgage interest deduction could save $20–$40 billion a year that could instead be directed to low-income housing, Burnes said.

But reduction of a popular tax deduction requires political will, Burnes noted, and that will only come with a vocal political constituency large enough to exert pressure for federal, state and local policy change.

"Get to know people who are experiencing homelessness," he advised. "Put pressure on your city council members, your local representatives, to do more about homelessness."

Homelessness in Denver
In Denver, Burnes said, funds currently used for so-called "homeless sweeps" could be directed to services and solutions. "We have not created alternative, safe, secure, dignified places for people on the streets to go," he said.

"Unless we substantially increase the kinds of resources that are going to create affordable, attainable housing," Burnes added, "we're always going to have people living on the street."

The mission of the Burnes Center is to inform policymakers and practitioners about issues related to homelessness, to impact policies and practices, and to transform the lives of people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. In December the Burnes Center co-hosted a public forum in Denver—"Move along to where?"—to discuss homelessness and creation of alternative, safe, dignified space for people who are homeless. And on Jan. 12, the Tattered Cover Bookstore hosted a discussion and book signing with Burnes.

Follow the Burnes Center on Facebook.