Redefining Homelessness Could Help Families, Youth on the Edge, Advocates Say

Advocates are hoping congressional legislation will align the HUD definition of homelessness with that of other federal agencies, so that more children, teens and young adults experiencing homelessness can access services.


Stateline, an Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts

By Teresa Wiltz

With many cities seeing a spike in homelessness, there’s a renewed state and federal effort to pass laws that would make it easier to help homeless children and youth, from getting them food and housing to connecting them with counseling.

Utah enacted legislation earlier this year allowing homeless minors to enter shelters without parental consent. Last week, Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed a similar bill.

Meanwhile, advocates for homeless students recently flocked to Capitol Hill, knocking on doors and meeting with senators and members of Congress, pushing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to change its definition of homelessness.

They’re pinning their hopes on a federal bill that would help homeless youth and young adults under age 25 to qualify for HUD dollars. The legislation, which has languished for years, would require HUD to expand its definition to include people not living on the streets or in shelters.

The homeless system is failing, and it’s failing because it’s not going upstream, to get to the youngest,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that focuses on the early care and education of children and youth experiencing homelessness.

“It’s been decades now of saying, ‘Oh we’ll get to families later,’” Duffield said. “But when do we get to talk about them? When?”

That approach, though, doesn’t recognize the pressing and expensive needs of the chronically homeless, according to other advocates, who fear expanding HUD’s definition would drain resources from programs such as rapid re-housing.

At issue is the different — and often conflicting — ways that federal agencies define homelessness and, therefore, eligibility for services. HUD defines as “literally homeless” any person living in a shelter or a place “not meant for human habitation.”

Other categories of eligibility include “imminent risk of homelessness”; “homeless under other federal statutes — but only if a person has moved twice in 60 days and has two or more disabilities”; and “fleeing/attempting to flee domestic violence.”

Young people outside these categories are not eligible to be assessed for HUD homelessness assistance.

The U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies include individuals or families with no fixed address who may be couch surfing, doubling up with others or camping out in a motel.

The federal bill, if passed, would change the definition of homelessness so that children and youth identified as homeless by other agencies who do not qualify under the “literally homeless” category would be eligible to be assessed for HUD services under what’s called continuum of care.

In December, HUD reported what it called “notable declines” of homelessness among families with children living in shelters or on the street, a nearly 3% decrease from 2017.

Meanwhile, preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Education released in July found that in the 2017-2018 school year, more than 1.5 million children and teens enrolled in school were homeless, up from 1.4 million in 2016-2017.

This does not include children who were homeless in the summer, young children not enrolled in federal preschool programs or dropouts. Overall, researchers estimate 4.2 million children and youth are homeless.

The difference in definitions, critics argue, means that HUD is excluding more than a million kids, making it almost impossible for state and local policymakers to use federal money to help them.

In an emailed statement, HUD spokeswoman Shantae Goodloe wrote that many communities develop local policies on how to implement programs backed by federal money. Some of the difficulties serving homeless youth might come from local officials not understanding how to categorize homelessness, Goodloe said.

In 2016, HUD spent $1.8 billion on homelessness aid, only $134 million of which went to services for youths. The agency said it increased that amount to $251 million in 2018.

Congressional legislation addressing the disparity, which has gone nowhere in the past six years, would align the HUD definition of homelessness with that of other federal agencies, so that more children, teens and young adults experiencing homelessness — whom many advocates call the “invisible homeless” — can access more services.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican, is co-sponsoring legislation that he said he is pushing to bring to a vote in the coming weeks. If the House doesn’t pass the bill before Congress breaks for recess, Stivers told Stateline, he will push for an amendment or pressure HUD to change the rule.

“My point is, ‘Let’s bring more people in’” to be included in the definition of homelessness, Stivers said.

“And as soon as we can count ’em, let’s give them more money,” Stivers said. “But we need to change the definition first.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, plans to reintroduce the legislation in the coming weeks, according to her office.

Earlier this month, a coalition of school officials who work with homeless youth met with senators and their staff on Capitol Hill — including U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican; Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat; and Susan Collins, a Maine Republican — according to Duffield, the SchoolHouse Connection director who attended the meetings.

The officials pressed for a change in the HUD definition, Duffield said. Schools can help homeless families only so much, she said, and can’t give them housing assistance or shelter.

“It’s so confusing for families to call [emergency hotlines] and be told they’re not homeless” if they’re couch surfing or staying in a motel, Duffield said. “And they know they’re homeless. But you can’t even get assessed for help if you don’t meet HUD’s definition.”

But while groups working with homeless children and youth are lobbying for the change, other advocacy groups, such as the National Alliance to End Homelessness, oppose it.

They argue that while homeless youth are living in precarious situations, they’re not facing the extreme dangers the chronically homeless living on the street encounter each day.

Expanding the HUD definition “threatens to overwhelm an already burdened system with more people,” said Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group focusing on chronic homelessness.

There’s already not enough funding,” Berg said.

But without intervention, the homeless children and youth of today will become the chronically homeless who’ve been living on the street for years, said Judith Dittman, CEO of Second Story, a Fairfax County, Virginia-based nonprofit that serves homeless youth.

“It’s very frustrating,” Dittman said, “working with young people that you know are inappropriately housed.”

When teens and young adults become homeless, she said, the first thing they do is call a friend and ask to crash on their couch.

As soon as your friend says, ‘You can spend the night,’ you’re no longer homeless by HUD’s definition,” Dittman said. “Maybe this young person has a couch tonight but tomorrow night they’re not going to.”

What homeless youth need, Dittman said, is both housing and getting help obtaining a high school diploma, job training and counseling for trauma.

A November report by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a New York City-based policy research organization, found that homeless high school students were five times more likely to go hungry than students with stable housing.

And a 2018 report by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that 44% of young women experiencing homelessness were either pregnant or parenting.

That’s an experience that Taelyn, a 20-year-old single mom living in a Second Story shelter for homeless young mothers in Falls Church, Virginia, knows all too well.

Taelyn, who didn’t want to give her last name out of privacy concerns, became homeless last year, shortly after she had her baby daughter. The Manassas, Virginia, native was living with her mother and younger siblings when her mother lost the lease on their rented townhouse. Her mother and siblings went into a shelter, and Taelyn bounced between her friend’s place and her great-grandmother’s home.

But her great-grandmother decided that she’d rather live alone, so Taelyn scrambled to find a place to stay.

In September, she moved into a Second Story townhouse, which she and her 13-month-old share with another young mom and her kids.

Under the Second Story program for young mothers, which receives money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, she can live in her new home for 18 months. She’s working at McDonald’s and plans to continue her dental-assistant training.

She just hopes she can do what she needs to do in the time she’s been allotted.

“I’m feeling the pressure,” she said. “I’m very motivated.”

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