The McKinney-Vento Act

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed the first and only significant legislation addressing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act, which was originally named the Homeless Persons’ Survival Act but was later renamed in honor of two of its biggest supporters, Representatives Stewart B. McKinney and Bruce Vento, provides emergency shelter, transitional housing, food, health care, mental health and substance abuse services and education to the nation’s homeless. The Act was amended four times, in 1988, 1990, 1992, and 1994. New programs were added, including the Rural Homeless Housing Assistance grant program and free public preschool education for homeless children. Over the years, though, funding for the McKinney-Vento Act programs has diminished. Several programs were eliminated, including the Adult Education for the Homeless program and the Family Support Centers. Sadly, other programs are now in jeopardy.

Help for the Homeless

Both the government and private organizations provide housing, food and job assistance to the homeless. Below are just a few of the programs available:


Homeless shelters provide temporary housing for people who don’t have a place to stay. In 2005, nearly 500,000 beds were available in emergency and transitional shelters around the country. Most shelters are clustered in and around cities. About two-fifths of shelters accept families— the rest specify men or women only.

Public Housing

Public housing units, from apartment buildings to individual homes, are available to very low-income families, the elderly and disabled people. People who live in public housing pay only what they can afford, which is either a small percentage of their income or a very low monthly rent. People can stay in public housing indefinitely, provided that they comply with the rules outlined in their lease.

Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program

The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher federal government program helps people with very low incomes, as well as the elderly and disabled find private homes or apartments of their choice. The government provides vouchers, which can be used toward any type of housing that meets the program’s requirements. Participants must pay 30 percent of their monthly income for rent and utilities, and the local public housing agency pays the remainder of the rent directly to the landlord.

The government housing programs available today are not enough to meet the needs of all the homeless people in America. The average wait time for a Section 8 voucher in 2004 was nearly three years. Almost half of today’s homeless people can’t get into a shelter. Rural areas often don’t have any shelters. By choice or necessity, many of the nation’s homeless live on the street or wherever they can find a place to sleep.

Food Banks and Food Donations

Food banks have been around since the 1960s. Community food banks collect canned goods and other, primarily non-perishable items from companies and individual donors, and then distribute that food to homeless people at centers around the country. America’s Second Harvest operates the largest network of food banks, with more than 200 community food banks, as well as soup kitchens and emergency shelters around the country. Smaller, independent organizations, including churches and local agencies, operate their own soup kitchens and food banks, which are mainly staffed by volunteers.

Job Training

Escaping from homelessness requires more than a bed to sleep in every night and three meals a day. People need jobs and real prospects for the future. Both the government and private organizations offer job training programs to help homeless people get back on their feet. First Step, a program offered by the Coalition for the Homeless, provides job skills training, computer education, internships, and mentoring .

Through the Workforce Investment Act, the Department of Labor provides employment and training services, via One-Stop Career Centers around the country. And, the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program (HVRP) helps homeless vets find jobs and become active members of the workforce.