Change heartless rules to house homeless families
by Paul Boden
What kind of a mean, coldhearted, even sadistic homeless service provider would tell a family of three or four or five living in a single-room-occupancy hotel, or “illegally” sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment: “You aren’t homeless enough – you’re just poorly housed. Go sleep in the streets for a while. When you come back, you better be able to prove you are homeless.”
This would be the only kind of homeless service provider the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been willing to fund since 2009.
In fact, the agency is so serious about this that, in 2011, it put out a 105-page memo detailing for local communities how severe the penalties would be for providing any services with HUD money without thoroughly documenting the eligibility of any homeless family or youth. Fines would be incurred if agencies served those not designated as a priority for services by the ridiculous point-in-time head counts HUD requires communities to perform.
That is why Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, have introduced legislation in their respective legislative chambers to overturn these draconian rules. The bills would amend HUD’s definition of homelessness, a change that would allow approximately 900,000 homeless children and families nationwide to access federal assistance programs. Specifically, children living in motels and doubled-up in households with acquaintances would be recognized as homeless.
HUD is, by far, the largest funder of homeless services. Yet, HUD’s restrictive definition of homelessness has created a cruel and vicious cycle. Once families lose their homes, they scramble for any place to stay. If they sleep in a vehicle or remain on the streets, they risk being categorized as unfit parents and losing their children to public agencies.
Hoping to avoid that, families will stay with other people, often in unstable and unhealthy situations that render them ineligible for homeless assistance. And, if that isn’t coldhearted enough (and it is), HUD also applies these rules to unaccompanied youth as well.
Why this Scrooge-like approach? Because families and unaccompanied youth cost too much money, that’s why. HUD can house 25 single adults in hotel rooms for the same cost of housing three families or helping out seven unaccompanied youth. So single adults have become HUD’s primary business.
HUD and some of the national homeless groups are trying to sell everyone on the amazing success of their 10-year plans to end homelessness. Yes, their head count numbers have gone way down (through redefinition but not reality). And yes, thousands of single adult homeless people have been housed in hotel rooms.
So, when your measuring stick for success is fewer homeless heads on the streets and more people in hotel rooms, you really can’t be wasting money caring for people who aren’t visible or obviously homeless (but who, nevertheless, are neither safe nor providing a good place for their children).
The human math is pretty simple: In 2006, we had 600,000 homeless students in public schools nationwide. In 2009, we had 930,000 and in 2012, it was 1.168 million. Yet, that same year, only 247,178 homeless households were eligible to receive services through HUD homeless assistance programs.
Call it poorly housed or call it the invisible homeless. No matter what you call it, this is heartless public policy. Support Feinstein’s and Miller’s legislation to change it.
Paul Boden, who was once homeless, is the organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. For updated information and to find out how to contact your elected representatives, go to http://www.helphomelessyouthnow.org.