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.
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.