Battle Reopens Over Definition of Homelessness

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.

10 Responses to Battle Reopens Over Definition of Homelessness

  1. dhenderson82 says:

    I’m inclined to side with NAEHCY. The argument that definitions should reflect reality regardless of the funding landscape is, in my mind, compelling. I also agree that the decision of whom to serve should be left to on the ground service providers, so even if a change in definition opens up the number of people qualifying for services, service providers are in a better position to triage service and optimize outcomes.

  2. I’m inclined to side with NAEHCY. The argument that definitions should reflect reality regardless of the funding landscape is, in my mind, compelling. I also agree that the decision of whom to serve should be left to on the ground service providers, so even if a change in definition opens up the number of people qualifying for services, service providers are in a better position to triage service and optimize outcomes.

  3. When has the federal government given resources to a program serving low-income populations without a fight? What does NAEH think is going to happen–put something in the water that Congress drinks so they end up helping homeless families and youth by allocating much-needed funding? I don’t think so. The fight against aligning the definition with other federal departments is self-serving. If NAEH really cared about kids experiencing homelessness, they’d be fighting not only for the change in definition but for more resources. This is a crisis long in the making–since 1987 when the McKinney Act was first passed. Adults inside the Beltway didn’t understand homelessness then, and they haven’t learned. In the meantime, more families and youth become homeless. Convenient–when they’re adults we’ll maybe serve them.

  4. Vikki Perpinan says:

    Families staying with friends or relatives, or spending every penny they have to stay in inadequate hotels are HOMELESS…..Call it what it is!…It is so much easier to ignore when the reported numbers are so low…. Misinformation keeps congress ignorant of the real problem….Every member of congress–public service should be required to live in the homes of their low income constituents for six months before taking office….

  5. […] to recall that the legislation governing the HUD grants — and thus the data collected — generally excludes people, including children and youth, who are living in motels or doubled-up with friends or […]

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. […] even the best count wouldn’t give us an accurate read because the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use — and therefore, the definition its grantees must use for their counts […]

  8. […] with the figure. And four major advocacy organizations have, arguing, among other things, that the definition of “homeless” that communities must use for their counts excludes a very large number of people, including youth […]

  9. […] meant for human habitation.” And as I say virtually every time I report count figures, they don’t include nearly all families (or individuals) without a home of their […]

  10. […] off, we have an uncounted number of homeless people who are living doubled up with friends or relatives and others who are […]

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