A bill introduced in the Senate in late January proposes that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) use a definition of “homeless” that could enable more youth and families to access its services.
Homeless youth and families that are living temporarily in motels or who are “doubled up”—temporarily living in a family member’s or friend’s home—do not count as homeless under HUD’s current definition, and they are literally not counted in HUD’s annual point-in-time count, which counts the number of homeless individuals on one night in January. As a result, these homeless youth and families are only eligible for HUD homelessness assistance on a very limited basis.
The legislation, which has been referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, would expand HUD’s current definition of homelessness to include youth who are classified as homeless under the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program (the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act). This definition includes youth and families who are living temporarily in motels or with family or friends.
Expanding HUD’s definition could have important implications for the availability of services to these youths and families. By some counts, as many as three million more individuals would become eligible under this new definition, including importantly, as many as one million children.
Opponents of this bill argue, correctly, that simply expanding the definition so that more people qualify will do no good if funding and service levels aren’t increased. Because the number of homeless individuals would increase under the new definition, it is likely that the percent of homeless individuals served through federal programs will decrease and that the quality of care will decline as dollars are stretched to serve more people.
While accurate, these arguments miss the point. What isn’t counted doesn’t count. Not counting these youth and families doesn’t make them any less homeless. In fact, not counting them may only serve to perpetuate the problem by allowing them to remain ineligible for services and by allowing the problem to go unnoticed and undocumented. In many instances the circumstances of these youth and families continue to deteriorate until they are living in shelters or on the streets, where children and youth are more likely to be physically assaulted, raped, or trafficked. (As many as 42 percent of homeless youth report being sexually abused, compared to only 1-3 percent of youth in the general population.)
Counting these individuals could enable HUD to develop services designed to prevent youth and families from getting to the point of being in a shelter or on the street. But developing programmatic supports and policy solutions requires that policymakers first have an accurate picture of the problem. This includes having a complete definition accounting for all individuals experiencing homelessness. Policymakers must then work to ensure that the funding and services are in place so that when these kids and families are identified, they are also served.