Understanding the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Programs

written by naehblog
July 15, 2009

So last week I did something new – the release of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), so I thought this week I’d do something old: the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistant Act.


The McKinney-Vento Act was authored by Stewart Brett McKinney – a Republican Congressman from Connecticut – and Bruce Frank Vento – a Democratic-Farm-Labor Congressman from Minnesota, both of whom were known to their peers as advocates of those less fortunate, and dedicated to finding supportive programs and solutions to homelessness. The bill was signed by President Ronald Reagan, who – ironically – is often accused of contributing to modern-day homelessness bydeinstitutionalizing mental health facilities in the 1980s.


The McKinney-Vento Act was a comprehensive, multi-faceted bill that:

  • Established the Interagency Council on Homelessness, a group of representatives from 15 federal agencies charged to design a comprehensive approach to reduce, prevent, and end homelessness in the country, and
  • Created 20 assistance programs administered by nine federal agencies providing a spectrum of services to homeless people, including supportive housing, emergency shelter, emergency food and shelter grants, rental assistance, job training and education, etc.

The original text of the bill firmly establishes that homelessness is a growing social problem that can be addressed by the federal assistance. I found it particularly interesting that they wrote, “the problem of homelessness has become more severe and, in the absence of more effective efforts, is expected to become dramatically worse, endangering the lives and safety of the homeless; the causes of homelessness are many and complex, and homeless individuals have diverse needs; there is no single, simple solution to the problem of homelessness because of the different subpopulations of the homeless, the different causes of and reasons for homelessness, and the different needs of homeless individuals…”.

(It’s as true today as it was then. Maybe even more so.)


Since 1987, when the Act was enacted, it has been amended four times: 1988, 1990, 1992, and 1994. Most of the amendments have been cosmetic but in 1990, there were more substantial attempts to change the programs.

In 1990, Congress did the following (among other things):

  • Expanded the number of activities eligible for McKinney funding.
  • Expanded the Homeless Children and Youth program, and specified the obligations of state and local communities to ensure that homeless youth and children have access to public education.
  • Created new programs, including the Shelter Plus Care Program and a health care for the homeless program.
  • Renamed the Community Mental Health Services program to Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness program (PATH).


In May 2009, Congress passed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, which reauthorized the McKinney-Vento homeless assistance programs. It was the first significant reauthorization in nearly 20 years, both making transformative changes to the homeless assistance programs under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as decisively shifting the focus of these programs from managing homelessness to preventing and ending homelessness.

Watch Steve Berg, Vice President of the Alliance, discuss the history and transformation of the McKinney-Vento programs. Note: the sound is a little fuzzy – we apologize in advance! (You can also watch this on our YouTube channel).

Hope this helps!