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.
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.