Not long before Jesse died, we were chatting, as we often did, about issues I was working on — in this case, the District of Columbia’s homeless shelters.
I had to explain to him that if we became homeless and had no place to stay, we would have to live on the streets or spend our nights in separate sex-segregated shelters, then meet up some place or other when they turned us out at daybreak.
He was dumbfounded. It apparently had never occurred to him that we weren’t a family, according to the District’s homeless services policies.
I recalled the moment as I read reports of interviews with the homeless people the District is sweeping out of the campsites they’ve set up. The Department of Human Services, to its credit, has placed some of them in housing units. It wants most of them, however, to go into the shelters — at least, for awhile.
A fair number, it seems, don’t want to go — understandably, given conditions in what are called shelters for singles. Repeated references to bedbugs. Fears of having their belonging stolen. Fights. Bad food.
But it’s not only such shelter conditions. “They split you and your husband up,” said one woman interviewed. “We prefer to have privacy.”
None in the shelter for either — let alone privacy for the two together so they could comfort each other, talk about next steps and, well, do what couples do only when alone in a room with a door.
The problem, you see, is that they don’t have children in their care, just as Jesse and I wouldn’t have if we’d had to throw ourselves on the mercies of DHS.
This isn’t a singular safety net policy. We see it, for example, in states’ Medicaid policies. Twenty-two exclude all childless adults who don’t have disabilities, except pregnant women. All cover parents, though some only those far below the poverty line.
These are state choices, as the variations indicate. But the federal government itself doesn’t view childless couples as families — or for that matter, couples whose children are grown ups.
The only nationwide source of cash income for poor people who aren’t severely disabled is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But couples who have no children living with them don’t qualify.
So-called general assistance programs could fill this gap in the safety net. But the federal government provides no funds for them. So states that had GA programs have exercised their unlimited flexibility to get rid of them or scale them back in various ways, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.
Only 11 provide cash benefits to childless adults who aren’t demonstrably unemployable — because they’re elderly, for example, or disabled, but haven’t yet (and perhaps can’t) surmount the hurdles to gaining Supplemental Security Income.
SNAP (the food stamp program) does provide cash-equivalent aid for childless couples. But as I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can generally get benefits for only three months in any three-year period unless they’re working or participating in a job training program at least half-time.
This restriction applies to childless couples if both spouses or partners have no disabilities unless they’re caring for someone in the household who’s disabled or have a child on the way. And the chances that both can get into — and remain in — certified job training programs are, in many states, virtually nil.
The time limit originated in the same law that brought us TANF — the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
I mention this because it perversely disadvantages couples who’ve chosen not to have children unless and until they can afford to provide for their basic needs, plus the time, attention and opportunities that support healthy, well-rounded development. Seems like personal responsibility to me.
Far be it from me to say our safety net programs shouldn’t put a high priority on the well-being of the next generation. But we don’t have to choose between children and working-age adults who don’t have any.
And we surely don’t have to treat homeless couples who don’t have children with them as if they weren’t families.