Another Round in the Debate Over Who Is Truly Homeless

August 25, 2014

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has again raised objections to the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act — the formal title of a pair of bills now pending in Congress.

As I earlier wrote, they would expand the definition of “homeless” that controls uses communities may make of their federal homeless assistance grants.

They would, among other things, extend eligibility to homeless children and youth if they’re living doubled up with friends or relatives or in a cheap motel, just as they’re already eligible for services from public schools that receive funds under another part of the same law.

Families and children could become eligible in other ways as well, as could youth who are out in the world by themselves, without a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

NAEH argues that federal funds for homeless people can’t even meet the needs of those already eligible. “Tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied youth go unsheltered every night,” it says, “because there is not enough money to serve them all.”

No one, I think, would say otherwise. Funding for homeless assistance grants has remained virtually flat since Fiscal Year 2010. And they will get either no increase or a very small one when Congress gets around to agreeing on funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

NAEH also notes egregious under-funding for programs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services administers for unaccompanied youth who’ve run away from home or are homeless for other reasons.

These programs, plus HUD’s serve barely 14% of these youth now, according to the Alliance’s estimates.

But NAEH goes further. “[M]ost people in doubled up households are not homeless,” it says. And the HEARTH Act, which governs HUD’s homeless assistance program, already covers those who are.

Some of them are people who’ll have no place to stay at the end of two weeks. Others are those who’ve fled — or urgently need to flee — the place they’ve been living because of domestic violence or some other dangerous situation, if they don’t have the resources or networks to move into other housing.

For the rest, NAEH says, the answer is HUD-funded rental assistance. But, it continues, there’s not enough money for that either. Indeed.

Only about one in four very low-income households receives rental assistance, according to HUD’s latest (somewhat outdated) assessment. And the prospects for the remainder are dismal.

In fact, we may be looking at a loss of even more than the 72,000 or so housing vouchers local agencies retired to deal with the across-the-board cuts in 2013, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Like as not, the agencies will also have to keep more public housing units vacant because they won’t have the funds to make essential repairs.

So NAEH is right in saying that we need a significant increase in funding for affordable housing.

What divides the Alliance from the large coalition that supports the bills is its view that we need to preserve the current restrictive definition of “homeless” so that “the very limited resources” available remain “dedicated to children, youth, and families who are without any housing at all.”

It essentially pits their needs against those of families and youth who are living doubled up. The proposed legislation, it says, “asks people living on the street and in shelter to compete with them.”

Not really. The bills would merely allow communities to include services for the newly-eligible families and unaccompanied youth in the plans they must submit to receive homeless assistance grants — and prohibit HUD from denying them grants merely because it has other priorities.

The larger issue, I suppose, is whether we should draw a bright, white line between families who are living with Aunt Suzy one month and a charitable friend the next and those who’ve exhausted such options.

Should we put families living in motels through two extra weeks of acute anxiety and stress before we offer them HUD-funded rapid re-housing, knowing they won’t have enough money to stay where they are?

And do we really want young people who’ve left their families, been kicked out or aged out of foster care to bounce from one couch to another when we know this puts them at risk of abuse, problems (or worse problems) in school and more?

NAEH apparently feels we must because the Homeless Children and Youth Act doesn’t increase funding.

The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth vehemently disagrees. It’s “nonsensical,” the Association says, to define a problem by the funding currently available to address it.

That just gives policymakers “an unrealistic view of the scope of the problem.” Congress “needs to know who and how many people are without housing in order to define effective solutions,” NAEHCY contends.

This seems to me as incontrovertible as what NAEH says about insufficient federal funding for both homeless and affordable housing programs. Yet Congress already knows more than enough to know it’s short-changing them.

Amending the HEARTH Act to include doubled-up families, motel-dwellers who can’t afford their rooms, couch-surfers and others precariously and perhaps unsafely housed would give communities more flexibility to develop plans based on their own assessments of local needs.

But until we have a Congress that’s prepared to spend more on our safety net, every dollar spent on the newly-eligible will be a dollar less for other homeless people — at least so far as federal dollars are concerned.

That much, I think, NAEH is right about. Whether dollars spent to keep doubled-up families and the rest from joining the already-eligible on the streets or in shelters is another matter.


Battle Reopens Over Definition of Homelessness

April 2, 2012

It’s sad when nonprofits that advocate for the same cause openly fight with one another.

That’s what we’re seeing now as organizations dedicated to improving services for homeless people take opposite sides on a bill pending in the House of Representatives.

The bill at issue — the Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 32) — would expand the definition of “homeless” in the HEARTH Act, i.e., the latest version of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Why Worry About a Word?

The HEARTH Act definition of “homeless” sets the parameters for local programs supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homeless assistance grants.

It determines both the populations the grant funds may serve and those that get counted and reported to HUD. The figures reported to HUD are reported to Congress — and ultimately to us, through press reports, blog posts and the like.

The definition thus not only reflects, but helps shape public policy.

First Round of the Definition Debate

H.R. 32 reopens an issue that split organizations at the time Congressional committees were developing the HEARTH Act.

The McKinney Vento Act defined homeless people as those who are in shelters, transitional housing or “places not meant for human habitation.”

People living in cheap motels or some friend’s spare bedroom weren’t officially homeless — and thus not eligible for HUD-funded services.

Their children, however, were officially homeless under Title VII of the McKinney-Vento Act — the part that covers requirements and funding for the education of homeless children and youth.

A number of national organizations urged Congress to broaden the general definition to include families whose children were already homeless under Title VII.

That would have extended eligibility for shelter and more stable housing to families living with friends or relatives or in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds because they couldn’t afford “alternative adequate accommodations.”

Other organizations, including the National Alliance to End Homelessness, resisted, foreseeing a large expansion in the eligibility pool with no commensurate increases in funding or fundable initiatives.

Congress ultimately tried to split the difference.

HEARTH Act Compromise

As things stand now, the HEARTH Act definition includes individuals and families if they’re about to be evicted and have no immediate prospects for an alternative residence.

Those living doubled up are part of this group, as are those living in motels — but, as with evictions, but only if they’ll have no place to stay in two weeks.

The new definition also recognizes families and unaccompanied youth who are already homeless under other federal laws, but only if they’ve been without permanent housing for a long time, moved frequently and can be expected to remain unstably housed for one or more of specified reasons, e.g., a chronic disability, a history of domestic violence or childhood abuse, “multiple barriers to employment.”

In short, an expansion, but hedged with conditions.

Round Two

No one, I suppose, found the compromise altogether satisfying. Advocates for the Title VII-type definition surely didn’t.

So they found a friendly House member — Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) — to introduce a bill that would make the HEARTH Act definition the way they always wanted it.

A leading proponent — the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth — says the legislation is urgently needed because “many homeless children and youth are suffering out of public sight.”

We don’t see the hardships they’re enduring because they’re living in motels or doubled up. But they’re actually more in danger of abuse, untreated health problems, hunger and “educational deficits” than those in shelters, NAEHCY says.

HUD’s regulations make it “virtually impossible” for these at-risk children and youth to qualify for the assistance the agency funds. Even those who might meet the HEARTH Act definition could be barred by the formidable documentation and verification requirements.

NAEHCY argues that local service providers are best qualified to know which homeless families and children are most in need of housing and services.

And there’d be no red tape because children and youth already verified as homeless by any one of four federally-funded programs, e.g., a local school district, a Head Start program, would be automatically eligible. Their families as well.

To top it off, the Biggert bill wouldn’t cost anything. That’s again where the conflict lies.

NAEH warns that the expanded definition would divert already inadequate resources from “children who literally have no roof over their heads.”

There’s no indication, it says, that additional funds will be provided to accommodate the increase in the number of families eligible for the assistance HUD funds through its Continuum of Care grants.

I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. If the expanded definition came with a bigger piece of federal budget pie, we wouldn’t have organizations fighting over who should get the crumbs.

Yet, as NAEHCY says, “policy should be based on reality, not fantasy.” Under the current definition, at least 762,000 or so children and youth that most of us would consider homeless aren’t counted as such. Not even an estimate apparently for the number of uncounted homeless families.

Getting a fix on the scope of the problem won’t solve it. But Congress surely won’t act if the numbers it gets minimize the crisis.


HEARTH Act Goes to the President for Signature

May 20, 2009

Yesterday both the House and Senate passed the final version of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act. This version includes the controversial HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act. The legislation has been sent to the President, who’s expected to sign it later today.

As those of you who’ve been following this blog know, I and many other advocates have serious concerns about the HEARTH Act–particularly its definition of homeless persons who will be eligible for assistance.

The definition is better than the one it replaces, but it will still exclude numerous homeless individuals and families. The legislation will also preserve, virtually intact, the old, even more restrictive definition used for the annual homeless counts.

I seriously doubt that Congress will want to revisit the issues any time soon. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. We need to keep building the case for expanding the eligibility criteria. We also, I think, need to try to form a broader coalition so that, next time round, all the major advocacy organizations are speaking with a single voice.


HEARTH Act Moves Forward – With Defects Intact

May 8, 2009

On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act. Sounds like good news, doesn’t it?

Up to a point, it is. The legislation would make various changes in existing law–maybe not the best, but still pretty good–that would help prevent foreclosures, enhance mortgage credit availability and strengthen protections against mortgage fraud.

But the Senate folded the HEARTH Act into the legislation. As I and many others have said before, the HEARTH Act has serious defects.

  • The definition of “homeless” in the Act would perpetuate the exclusion of large groups of homeless individuals and families.
  • The Act would severely restrict the use of federal funds to help individuals and families newly recognized as homeless.
  • It would allow communities to continue ignoring most of these newly-recognized homeless people–and all those still not officially recognized–in their annual homeless counts.

The National Coalition for the Homeless has raised additional concerns about community decision-making,  flexibility and privacy.

The version of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act that passed in the House doesn’t include the HEARTH Act. So whether it’s in or out of the final bill will be subject to House-Senate negotiations.

Stay tuned …


Most Homeless Families Still Won’t Count Under HEARTH Act

April 27, 2009

Congress will try again this year to pass the HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act. The act will reauthorize the programs that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administers under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

These programs are the main source of federal support for local programs that provide emergency shelter, longer-term housing and supportive services for homeless people and services to prevent homelessness.

One of the most important issues for Congress to resolve is who should be considered homeless for the purposes of HUD-funded programs and services. As I’ve written before, HUD currently uses a highly restrictive definition that excludes large groups of homeless individuals and families.

First the good news. The bills introduced in the Senate (S. 808) and the House (HR. 1877) would expand the general definition of “homeless.”

For example, individuals and families would become eligible for assistance funded under HUD’s Continuum of Care programs if they “will imminently lose their housing” and have no place to go or immediate prospects for securing permanent housing.

Also eligible for the first time would be families with children and unaccompanied youth who are defined as homeless in other federal laws, have a history of unstable housing situations and are likely to continue having difficulties due to any one of a number of specified reasons.

Now the not-good news. The definition still excludes numerous homeless individuals and families. For example:

  • Families living in motels or hotels simply because they can’t afford to rent an apartment.
  • Families who are doubled up with friends or relatives, again simply because they can’t afford a place of their own.
  • Individuals and couples without children in either of these situations.
  • Youth who’ve recently fled their homes because of domestic violence or abuse.
  • Individuals who are being discharged from a mental hospital, jail or other institution but who didn’t formerly live in a shelter or “place not meant for human habitation.”

Moreover, most local programs would be able to use only 10% of their COC funds for the families with children and unaccompanied youth who would become officially homeless under the new definition. So the programs would still be skewed toward people who fit the old even more restrictive definition.

And now the bad news. Buried in the legislation is a provision that effectively allows local communities to continue ignoring most of the newly-recognized homeless individuals and families in their annual homeless counts. All they’ll have to do is begin counting individuals leaving institutions after some former stint in a shelter or on the streets.

So we will won’t know how many homeless people there are–not even close.

And if we don’t know this, how will we know if the HEARTH Act is working? The answer is, We won’t.


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