The definition of “homelessness” is not uniform among federal agencies, and a House Financial Services panel held a hearing June 6 on legislation that would help break down barriers to assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for homeless children and youth.
In a June 8 letter to the Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance, ABA President Hilarie Bass applauded Reps. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) and Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) for introducing H.R. 1511, the Homeless Children and Youth Act. The bill would amend the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to align HUD’s definition of homelessness with that of other agencies and allow caseworkers to determine on a case-by-case basis whether a child who is considered homeless for another federal program may also be eligible for assistance from HUD.
HUD’s definition of homelessness for eligibility for its programs includes people living in shelters, transitional housing, on the streets, or in other outdoor locations. The more expansive Department of Education (ED) definition includes children and youth who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes those living in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, motels, or temporarily sharing the housing of others. In addition to determining eligibility for ED programs, the department’s definition is used by the Head Start program, federally funded child care programs, child nutrition programs, and numerous other federal family and youth programs.
“At a time when an estimated 4.2 million American youth experience homelessness each year, it confounds common sense that all but one federal homeless program may consider a child to be eligible for assistance, yet leave that child exposed to dangerous living conditions because he or she is not somehow homeless enough,” Bass wrote.
During the hearing, witnesses expressing support for the legislation were Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, Kat Lilley, deputy executive director of Family Promise of Colorado Springs, and Millie Rounsville, chief executive officer for Northwest Wisconsin Community Services Agency Inc.
Rounsville emphasized that HUD homeless assistance eligibility criteria “exclude some of the most vulnerable homeless children and youth from accessing the programs and services they need.” The legislation, by aligning HUD homeless assistance eligibility criteria with other federal programs, will improve outcomes for these children and youth, she said.
Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, testified that his organization opposes the legislation, which he said would undermine the positive impact that HUD’s Continuum of Care program is having on homelessness around the country. The bill, he said, would result in waiting lists for programs without providing additional funding and make it harder for children in the most dire situations to get help with housing.
“We understand the concerns expressed at the hearing over the limited resources to address different kinds of homelessness, but those should not stand in the way of removing the legal barriers that keep homeless children in crisis and invisible,” Bass wrote in her letter. She urged the subcommittee to act favorably on H.R. 1511 so that it can be enacted during this Congress.
There has been no action in the Senate on identical legislation, S. 611, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).