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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