If the Obama administration succeeds in its goal of ending chronic homelessness in the United States, it can thank a group of activists who turned the course of history 27 years ago Monday, including a congressman who sacrificed his life for the cause. He and other supporters helped push through landmark legislation that addressed homelessness and was the only new social program enacted during the entire Reagan administration.
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.
But it still needed to get through Congress, no easy task in an age of austerity.
That’s when advocates, led by the Community for Creative Non-Violence and the National Coalition for the Homeless, decided to hold the Great American Sleep-Out in March. It was purposefully timed to coincide with the bill’s vote on the House floor. A number of celebrities, including Martin Sheen and Dennis Quaid, slept outside that night with their homeless brethren. More than a dozen congressmen also participated, as well as many homeless advocates. “I slept with 13 members of Congress in one night!” Stoops joked.
McKinney’s doctors and colleagues strongly advised him against sleeping outside that chilly March night. The Connecticut congressman had been living with AIDS since 1979, when he became infected during a blood transfusion. It’s extremely dangerous for anyone to sleep outside when temperatures are below freezing, but especially so for someone who could easily die from pneumonia.
McKinney knew the danger but decided the issue was so important to him that he was willing to risk his life for it. Other members of Congress tried to make sure he dressed as warmly as possible, Stoops recalled. But when it’s 20-something degrees out, an extra sweater only goes so far.
Two months later, McKinney died from AIDS-related pneumonia. He likely contracted the illness by staying out in the cold during the Great American Sleep-Out.
During those two months, though, the bill passed both chambers of Congress with veto-proof majorities, all but forcing Reagan to accede.
When asked how important the Sleep-Out was to the bill’s passage, Stoops noted that the bill made it through the House within just two months of being introduced, then passed the Senate the following month. “For a piece of legislation with funding attached to get through Congress that quickly, it’s really amazing,” he said. He credited the Sleep-Out with playing a key role in bringing national attention to the legislation.
Stoops also credited McKinney’s courage not just in risking and ultimately sacrificing his life for the cause, but for doing so in a party that’s generally hostile to increased social spending. “Without his support, we wouldn’t have been able to get many Republican members of Congress to support the bill,” Stoops said.
It’s been an invaluable law in many ways. As the National Coalition for the Homeless noted, it “has created valuable programs that have saved lives and helped hundreds of thousands of Americans to regain stability.” Just as important, McKinney helped make the fight against homelessness a national priority, an enduring legacy 27 years after his death as the United States tries to end chronic homelessness.
The official account of how McKinney contracted AIDS was from a blood transfusion following heart surgery, but some believe the congressman was in the closet and had contracted the disease sexually.