A child plays in a city-sanctioned encampment for homeless families in San Diego.
A child plays in a city-sanctioned encampment for homeless families in San Diego. Gregory Bull/AP

A bill designed to expand HUD’s recognition of homelessness has focused attention on the debate over who counts as the most vulnerable population.

Is homelessness in America surging or ebbing? It depends not only upon where you are, but who you ask—and what, precisely, you’re looking for.

Should you live in a big, high-cost city like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the number of people living in homelessness is exploding: In those metros, tent cities full of those priced out by soaring housing costs have created a major crisis for local leaders. Overall national figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, however, tell a different story. At the end of 2017, HUD announced that with the exception of really expensive areas, homelessness had continued to decline across the United States, a 13.1 percent decrease since 2010. When it comes to families with children experiencing homelessness, HUD reported a drop of 5.4 percent since 2016, continuing a 27 percent decline since 2010.

And yet according to many homeless service providers, these HUD figures belie not only their experience, but also data collected by other federal agencies, which use less narrow definitions for homelessness. For example, the U.S. 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 administered through the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly doubled between 2006 and 2016. While popular portrayals of the homeless typically feature individuals living on the streets or in shelters, advocates say there’s a growing crisis of family homelessness in the U.S., one that’s been rendered invisible by HUD’s refusal to count those in need who are living in motels or doubling up with others.

Now a bill is before Congress, the Homeless Children and Youth Act, that would seek to address this problem. Introduced by Senators Diane Feinstein and Rob Portman, and Representatives Steve Stivers and Dave Loebsack, the legislation would amend HUD’s definition of homelessness to align it with other federal agencies, thereby allowing more families to qualify for HUD’s services. Qualifying doesn’t mean necessarily receiving assistance, but it means eligible children and parents could be assessed for HUD services based on a variety of “vulnerability” measures.

Supporters of the legislation say this would provide a more accurate picture of the state of homelessness in the United States, and help better steer limited resources to those who are most in need. As it currently stands, HUD’s rules and regulations effectively exclude those not living in shelters or on the streets from qualifying for homeless assistance. But not all advocates for the homeless agree. The legislation, which was discussed in a House Financial Services subcommittee hearing last month, has a powerful opponent: the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an organization that provides data and research to policymakers and technical assistance to community providers.

The heart of the dispute involves how HUD gets its numbers on homelessness: Every year, on a night in late January, communities all over the U.S. go out and literally count the number of people they can find living on the streets or in shelters. But this “point-in-time” system is far from perfect. Critics note that these annual snapshots tend to over-emphasize urban homelessness, as it’s undeniably harder to survey sprawling suburban and rural regions in a single night. Such a system also misses those huddling up with others in crowded apartments; many parents avoid shelters out of fear that the authorities might take away their children.

These accounting gaps matter: HUD’s annual count greatly influences how much money Congress allocates to the federal housing agency each year, and shapes how HUD then directs the funding it receives. The Homeless Children and Youth Act would require HUD to include data from other federal sources when it reports the state of homelessness to Congress, and expand the housing agency’s criteria of eligibility for assistance.

“We agree funding should go to the most vulnerable, but we’re saying our kids and families need to be assessed too,” said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national youth homelessness organization that supports the proposed bill. “Maybe a parent took her children to a motel with registered sex offenders, or the parent has a long history of substance abuse and mental illness but they’re staying doubled up in someone’s crowded house. Their vulnerability score could be higher than someone staying in their car who doesn’t have a history of mental illness and addiction.”

But opponents of the bill at the National Alliance to End Homelessness have a very different take on what it might accomplish. “What this bill would do is expand assistance eligibility for people who are living in relatively stable situations, not in emergency crisis points,” said Steve Berg, the organization’s vice president of programs and policy. “We’ve found over the years that the real people in trouble will always go to the back of the line—they’re people who aren’t successful at getting help. You’ve got to target that funding to people in the crisis situation, otherwise all the money will get used for those in more stable situations. They’re easier to find, and serve.”

Claas Ehlers, the CEO of Family Promise, the largest nonprofit service provider to homeless families in the U.S., says Berg’s objection is ultimately misguided. “It’s very understandable why anyone working in this field would want to ensure the resources go where they need to go, and there’s a fear that with a finite amount of services, someone is going to get displaced,” he said. “But we’re not talking about something that’s going to create mass displacement. It’s not radically rewriting anything. I think everyone would agree there are levels of vulnerability, and the argument of the Homeless Children and Youth Act is, ‘Let’s assess an individual’s vulnerability, not just their housing status.’”

This question of who is most vulnerable can be a challenge to assess, however. Take the case of Sharon Wrosch, a 50-year-old mother of two whose recent struggle to keep a roof over her head might have been easier under the proposed legislation. When she became homeless in July 2016, she and her two children, then 12 and 11 years old, lived in her car for nearly a month. “We were living with somebody else and they decided they didn’t want to live there anymore, stopped paying rent, and we were evicted,” she said. “We really had nowhere to go.”

For nearly a year, Wrosch and her kids bounced around between friends and relatives who could host them for short periods of time, cycling back into her car when they couldn’t. But the time spent crashing with loved ones meant not all of Wrosch’s homeless experience “counted” under HUD’s definition, leaving her family ineligible for certain forms of assistance. Eventually, Wrosch hooked up with Family Promise of Genesee County, which worked to help her find stable housing and get back on her feet. A Michigan emergency relief subsidy also helped Wrosch finance a deposit and some of her first month’s rent, and she now lives with her children in a home just outside of Flint.

This isn’t the first time advocates have tried to expand HUD’s criteria for eligibility. In 2009, Congress passed the HEARTH Act, which narrowly expanded HUD’s definition of homelessness. But subsequent rules and regulations, says Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection, effectively rendered those new definitions meaningless, largely maintaining the eligibility status quo.

Much of this debate stems from disagreements over the “Housing First” model—an approach to ending homelessness that prioritizes getting people into permanent housing, irrespective of whatever mental health, substance abuse, or other issues they may be dealing with. It’s gained a lot of momentum over the last fifteen years, as the federal government has focused its energy primarily on reducing chronic homelessness—defined as an individual with a disability who has been living in an emergency shelter or somewhere not meant for habitation for the last 12 months, or on at least four occasions in the last three years where those four instances cumulatively total at least 12 months.

Housing First emerged partly in response to the “Housing Readiness” approach, which aims to provide services to those living in homelessness, gradually moving them toward stable housing and independence over time. HUD’s embrace of the Housing First model has meant a shift in its budget priorities towards more “rapid-rehousing” interventions, and scaling back on many of its supportive services.

This all remains deeply controversial: Some homeless advocates say Housing First is far from the best approach for all homeless populations, including homeless families. “We can’t have an overreliance on any one solution,” said Ehlers, of Family Promise. “It’s almost like a doctor saying, ‘Well, this cured breast cancer so I’m going to give it to you to cure pneumonia.’”

Duffield argues that HUD’s priorities haven’t aligned with actual homelessness trends, and that local communities should have a greater say in how to spend their assistance funds. The Homeless Children and Youth Act would change the rules by which HUD could award its competitive grant funding, giving more authority to local jurisdictions to set their own goals.

Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson for HUD, said that while the agency could not comment on pending legislation, HUD does include the Education Department’s statistics in its annual report to Congress. Duffield characterized this as neither “the full truth, nor the most important truth,” noting that while HUD includes the Education Department’s data in one of its reports—Part II of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress—it’s not included in any of the chapters on homelessness in the U.S. and only as an addendum. HUD’s narrower measure, Duffield added, is the only metric used for showing whether homelessness has decreased or increased, and the only metric used for HUD’s “Progress on the Preventing and Ending of Homelessness” report sent to Congress.

HUD did not respond to a request for further comment.

Ultimately, advocates for the homeless disagree about whether the proposed legislation will bring in more funds or contribute to a loss of federal support. Supporters of the bill say that the problem with HUD’s narrow metrics is that it diminishes the true scale of the crisis—and obscures the need for greater action. “If we don’t fully elucidate the problem, we’re never going to get towards solutions,” argues Ehlers. “If we can really fully understand what homelessness looks like, we can draw in a lot more private-sector resources, we can create more awareness, more public will, and highlight the real economic costs of family homelessness.” He adds that if homelessness appears to affect a small number of people who feel far removed from you and your circumstances, it can be harder to grasp and care about the issue.

Berg, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, takes the opposite view, insisting that there could be serious risks to funding if the dimensions of the issue and the very definition of the term change dramatically. Congress, he notes, has increased its funding for homelessness over the last few years faster than HUD’s funding overall; Berg says this is because Congress can see HUD is “focusing on best practices, doing things that work, and holding communities accountable for good results.” If HUD expands its eligibility for assistance, and progress starts to stagnate or reverses, Congress may get frustrated and ultimately reduce its homelessness allocations. “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.”

But if Congress is effectively rewarding HUD for dealing with homelessness based on distorted or misleading metrics, bill supporters argue, then it’s not much of a reward. “I think HUD’s data is extremely flawed, not only because of their definition, but the way they count homelessness annually is absurd—it’s about the worst method you could use,” said Duffield. “We have other federal agencies that offer a broader and more accurate perspective.”

Duffield thinks the worsening of the problem since the HEARTH Act’s passage has strengthened her colleagues’ position to get this bill through. Some lawmakers—like co-sponsor Stivers, a Republican from Ohio—have raised concerns about trafficking and the unique dangers faced by children in homelessness. Others have voiced frustration over HUD’s current priorities and definitions disincentivizing housing models that have worked well in their communities.

“The [political] climate is better now because the fact is there are members on both side of the aisles who are not seeing things go well in their district,” Duffield said. “We have bad policy that’s coming home to roost, and it’s affecting a lot of people.”

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