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Only about one in four very low-income households receives rental assistance, according to HUD’s latest (somewhat outdated) assessment.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.


New Hope for Left Out Homeless Children and Youth

August 4, 2014

How many children and youth are homeless in our country? We still don’t know. What we do know is that many of them don’t qualify for programs and services funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bipartisan bills introduced in both the House and Senate aim to close this gap in the safety net. Whether they will fare better than earlier efforts to expand the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use remains to be seen.

What’s the Problem?

The U.S. Department of Education reports that well over 1.1 million homeless children and youth attended public schools during the 2011-12 school year.

But this is an under-count — in part because not all school districts reported data. Even those that did probably didn’t know how many homeless students they had because, for obvious reasons, homeless kids don’t always ask for help. Nor are they always easy for school personnel to identify.

And, of course, the reported number doesn’t include infants and toddlers — or all somewhat older preschoolers either, the National Associations for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports. Homeless youth who’ve dropped out of school or graduated aren’t in the tally either.

Only some fraction of homeless children and youth — counted and otherwise — can get into a shelter funded in whole or in part by HUD because they and their parents have some place else to stay and aren’t demonstrably at immediate risk of being out on the streets.

They’re surely at risk of having to find another accommodating friend or relative — in some reported cases, because the place they’re staying is unhealthful or unsafe. But even in the best of cases, they’ll be moving from one place to another. And we know that instability is bad for kids.

The families are also ineligible for the limited-term housing assistance that HUD’s grantees provide — and for the services that aim to improve their finances so they can afford market-rate rents.

The children and youth are, however, homeless under the part of the McKinney-Vento Act that applies to public education — hence the count cited above. They may also be homeless under other federal laws.

What the Bills Would Do

The bills address several major problems advocates have identified. The largest is the restrictive definition that bars so many homeless families from HUD-funded aid — unless and until they’re out on the streets or about to be.

First off, the bills would enable families to qualify if they stand to lose their housing within 30 days, instead of the current two weeks.

Second they would extend the definition of “homeless” to children and youth who are verified as such by administrators of seven federal programs, in addition to HUD’s.

So, for example, children and youth who are living doubled-up with friends or relatives or staying in a cheap motel would become eligible for HUD-funded services, as they already are for those public schools must provide.

A somewhat similar provision extends eligibility to families and unaccompanied youth who are certified by a public housing authority as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Communities wouldn’t have to make these newly-eligible homeless families and youth a priority. But they could do more for them than HUD rules now allow. The bills, in fact, prohibit the agency from giving priority to any homeless population in its decisions on grant awards.

HUD currently gives top priority to people who are chronically homeless, i.e., those who have a severe disability and have been spending their nights in a shelter or “a place not meant for human habitation” for at least a year or recurrently.

Obviously not conducive to extending services for families and unaccompanied youth who’ve been couch-surfing.

Lastly, the bills require HUD to make the results of the HMIS (homeless management information system) reports that grantees must submit available online to anyone who’s interested — and to Congress.

We wouldn’t, of course, see personally-identifiable information about clients. But we would have access to better data than the one-night counts provide because HUD would have to report cumulative HMIS figures.

So we’d have a better fix on the extent of the problem. Of course, we’d also need more funding to address it — and to do so without shorting the needs of homeless adults who don’t have children in their care.

First, however, we need more members of Congress signed on to the bills. Those of you who have voting representation in Congress have several opportunities to help, including a quick and easy e-mail. We who live in the District of Columbia can pass the word along.

 


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.


Getting Homeless Children Counted

February 2, 2009

I recently wrote about how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “homeless” excludes large groups of homeless individuals and families from the annual homeless count.

A comment from Joni called attention to another excluded group–“couch surfers,” i.e., young people who are on their own and moving from one friend or relative’s home to another. Thanks again, Joni!

Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) has introduced a bill that would expand the definition of “homeless” to include not only “couch surfers,” but many other children and youth who are homeless but not counted now. It’s the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2009 (H.R. 29).

H.R. 29 would amend the current general definition of “homeless individual” in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to include children and youth who are verified as homeless by administrators of any one of four federally-funded programs.

Basically, children would still count as homeless if they were in emergency shelters, transitional housing or places not meant from human habitation, e.g., cars, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations.

But they would also count if they were:

  • Sharing the housing of someone else because they’d lost their home
  • Living in a motel, hotel, trailer park or camping ground “due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations”
  • On their own, in any of these situations, because they’d run away from home or been thrown out
  • Abandoned in a hospital
  • Awaiting foster care placement

This worthy bill currently has four co-sponsors. It will need a lot more to get on the agendas of the committees it’s been referred to, let alone a vote on the House floor.

HEAR US has launched a grassroots campaign to gain co-sponsors. Its blog has a downloadable, attention-grabbing form we can fax to our Representatives.

We can also call or send them an e-mail. Contact information (both phone and fax numbers) and e-mail forms are on their websites. Sites can be easily accessed from the home page of the House site.


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