At the beginning of the Reagan Presidency, most programs to address problems associated with homelessness were created, funded and administered at the grass-roots level. In the view of the administration, states and local jurisdictions were best equipped to handle their own homeless problems, and not the federal government. A first federal task force on homelessness was created in 1983 to provide information to local governments and interested parties on how to obtain surplus federal property, Title V.
Pressure was growing to address the problems of homelessness in a tangible way from the top down, with the federal government as an active participant in addressing the needs of homeless people. In 1986 the Congress passed a few small parts of the Homeless Persons' Survival Act.
Later that same year, legislation containing Title I of the Homeless Persons' Survival Act - emergency relief provisions for shelter, food, mobile health care, and transitional housing - was introduced as the Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act. After an intensive advocacy campaign, the legislation was passed by large bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress in 1987. After the death of its chief Republican sponsor, Representative Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut, the act was renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on July 22, 1987.
The McKinney Act originally consisted of fifteen programs providing a range of services to homeless people, including the Continuum of Care Programs: the Supportive Housing Program, the Shelter Plus Care Program, and the Single Room Occupancy Program, as well as the Emergency Shelter Grant Program. These programs are all contained within Title IV.
- Title I of the McKinney Act includes a statement of six findings by Congress and provides a definition of homelessness.
- Title II establishes and describes the functions of the Interagency Council on the Homeless, an independent entity within the Executive Branch composed of the heads of 15 federal agencies.
- Title III of the McKinney Act authorizes the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
- Title IV authorizes the emergency shelter and transitional housing programs administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, including the Emergency Shelter Grant program (expanded from the program created by the Homeless Housing Act in 1986), the Supportive Housing Demonstration Program, Supplemental Assistance for Facilities to Assist the Homeless, and Section 8 Single Room Occupancy Moderate Rehabilitation.
- Title V of the McKinney Act imposes requirements on federal agencies to identify and make available surplus federal property, such as buildings and land, for use by states, local governments, and nonprofit agencies to assist homeless people.
- Title VI authorizes several programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Title VII authorizes several programs administered by the Department of Education, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Title VIII amends the Food Stamp program to facilitate participation in the program by persons who are homeless, administered by the Department of Agriculture.
- Title IX of the McKinney Act extends the Veterans Job Training Act.
Though amended several times since its passage, the McKinney Act has stood the test of time, and provides the best first step to address the needs of a population that is, by and large, unknown and underrepresented.