Freelance journalist Rachel Cohen provides new reporting on labor, education, cities, politics and more.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Who counts as homeless?

And who counts the homeless?

HUD reported in December that with the exception of high-cost metro areas like L.A. and San Francisco, homelessness in the U.S. had continued to decline in 2017, a 13.1 percent decrease since 2010. Progress. For family homelessness, HUD announced a 5.4 percent drop since 2016, continuing a 27 percent decline since 2010. Even more progress.

And yet…the Department of Education counted 1.2 million students experiencing homelessness in 2015—a 19 percent increase from the 2010-11 school year. The number of children experiencing homelessness reported by Head Start, which is run by HHS, nearly doubled between 2006 and 2016. 

What explains these differences?

It turns out that HUD uses a much more narrow definition of "homelessness” to inform its annual count than other federal agencies, and doesn’t include those who may be living in motels or doubling up with others. And it’s HUD’s figures which get reported to Congress and form the basis for federal homelessness aid. As it stands now, if you’re not living on the streets or in a shelter, you’re unlikely to qualify for HUD’s homeless assistance programs.

There’s a bill in Congress now, the Homeless Children and Youth Act, which would change that. Supporters say HUD’s metrics and priorities benefit the chronically homeless at the expense of vulnerable children and families. The Act would not only change how HUD reports homelessness data to Congress, but also expand eligibility for its homeless assistance programs, allowing a greater number of people to compete for services.

The legislation has a significant and somewhat suprising opponent—The National Alliance to End Homelessness. Steve Berg, the organization’s VP of programs and policy told me: “What we hear mostly from communities is that there are too many eligible people already, and they don’t have enough money as it is. What exists now is designed to solve a problem. What this bill would do is make it into a program that’s designed to throw a little money at a much larger problem.”

I published a story in CityLab that takes a closer look at this complex debate happening between and among homeless advocates, one that raises hard questions about fiscal priorities in a context of austerity.

And in case it needs to be said, in a country as rich as ours, it’s shameful that we even have to ask whether to help a homeless family doubled up with others in a one-bedroom apartment, or a homeless person living by themselves on the streets.

Freelance journalist Rachel Cohen provides new reporting on labor, education, cities, politics and more.