Another Round in the Debate Over Who Is Truly Homeless

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Only about one in four very low-income households receives rental assistance, according to HUD’s latest (somewhat outdated) assessment.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

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