A homeless family at the DC Village shelter. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Sequestration can seem a little vague, abstract, difficult to wrap your head around. But here’s what it means when it comes to housing: up to 140,000 fewer low-income families receiving housing vouchers, more children exposed to lead paint, higher rent for people who can’t afford it and a rise in homelessness.

These are among the human costs of sequestration noted in a new paper by Doug Rice, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

“These kinds of cuts are really unprecedented,” says Rice, noting that the total number of available vouchers has been cut only twice before in the thirty-nine-year history of the Section 8 program. “But here we are, in 2013, looking at severe cuts even at a time when the number of families in need has been rising sharply.”

Indeed, since 2007 there has been a 32 percent increase in the number of families with children living in shelters and emergency housing. Each year, roughly 1.5 million Americans spend time in emergency or temporary shelters. 

Currently, only one in four eligible households receives a voucher, and there are waiting lists in almost every community. Of the households in the program, half include seniors or people with disabilities. The remaining households are mostly families with children. The average annual household income of a voucher recipient is just $12,500. 

Due to the sequestration, local agencies have begun “shelving” vouchers, which means that they aren’t reissuing them to families on the waiting lists when other families leave the program. Some agencies have even withdrawn vouchers from families who had received them but are still searching for an apartment. They are alerting families in the program that their assistance may be terminated later this year. They are proposing rent increases on current tenants, and will likely consider increasing fees on utilities, parking and other services. The CBPP report notes that these policies “are likely to steer families into neighborhoods with more crime, lower-performing schools, and less access to jobs.”

While 140,000 fewer low-income families will receive vouchers by early 2014—increasing the risk of homelessness for many families already deemed at risk—there will simultaneously be cuts in federal funding that enables communities to assist homeless people. The Emergency Solutions program awards grants to local communities for emergency shelters, temporary rent assistance and other services that help families avoid homelessness; these grants face up to a 34 percent cut.  

“Communities will be forced to either close down shelters or cut back efforts to prevent homelessness or re-house homeless families,” writes Rice.

At the same time, the Continuum of Care program awards grants targeting “chronic homelessness”—the population of those with mental or physical disabilities who are homeless for extended periods of time—will likely be reduced by at least $180 million. 

Sequestration will also result in housing agencies receiving only about 70 percent of the administrative funds that they are eligible for this year. That means they will be less able to perform property inspections and address “potentially serious problems” in apartments. 

Because of cuts in other Housing and Urban Development programs, there will be reduced efforts to minimize children’s exposure to lead in older units, and decreased production of new affordable housing for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Further, local agencies will receive only about half of the funding needed to cover new repairs and renovations this year—never mind the $26 billion backlog of capital needs in public housing developments.

At best, these cuts mean deteriorating living conditions for too many families. At worst, they mean more affordable units lost to disrepair. Already there are 260,000 fewer public housing units today than there were in the mid-1990s. 

Not to be lost in all of this is the effect these policies have on children over the long term. Children in housing-insecure families are more likely to be food insecure, in poor health and at risk for developmental delays. “They are much less likely to be productive economically [as adults] if they live in deep poverty as young kids, and part of this is a housing situation,” says Rice. “For kids to do well in school, stable housing in a decent, safe home is a pretty important component.” 

Rice has done a real service with this report. The questions are the same ones that seem to come up again and again when it comes to issues that are important to low-income people: Is anyone listening, and does anybody give a damn?

Greg Kaufmann’s blog is This Week in Poverty. In this Nation in the News entry (video), he asks, ”After Sequestration, Where Will Poor Families Sleep?