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.