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HR 32 Will Mean Less Help for the Neediest Homeless Children
Federal Policy Brief | February 14, 2012
The current HUD definition of homelessness includes any children (and their families) who live outside; in abandoned buildings, cars, other places not meant for human habitation; in shelters or transitional housing; or who are doubled up and in danger or at imminent risk of homelessness. This encompasses 350,000 or more children over the course of a year; 29,000 children are unsheltered on any given night. Every child who is literally homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness is included in the current HUD definition, including children in families fleeing domestic violence. Federal assistance to this extremely high need group is already inadequate, as evidenced by the fact that tens of thousands are unsheltered.
HR 32, if enacted, would expand the definition of homelessness to include an additional 2,351,762 low-income housed children each year, who, although their housing may be poor, are not literally homeless. It would accomplish this by defining as homeless all doubled up families: those “…sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.” Doing so is not only inaccurate – many of these households are stable and/or have doubled up specifically to avoid becoming homeless – it also threatens to significantly reduce resources for children who are literally homeless: there is no indication that additional funds will be provided to accommodate this six-fold increase in the number of eligible recipients of assistance. If HR 32 were enacted, children who are now defined as homeless, including those who are fleeing domestic violence, living in dangerous situations, or literally sleeping outside, would be forced to compete for scarce resources with millions more who have the advantage of a more stable apartment or house to sleep in every night.
The issue of whether doubled up families should be eligible for services from HUD’s homelessness programs was exhaustively debated over several years as Congress considered and ultimately passed the HEARTH Act. All sides spent considerable time on this issue, and a bipartisan compromise was painstakingly crafted. The legislation made all doubled up low-income families and youth eligible for homelessness prevention services under the revamped and enlarged Emergency Solutions Grants program. For the other HUD homeless program, the competitive Continuum of Care program, Congress decided to keep the focus on the most vulnerable families, adding doubled up people with the most severe challenges. This compromise addressed the needs of a range of families, while maintaining a reasonable focus on those children who are literally homeless.
There are numerous, larger federal programs that are tasked with addressing the needs of poorly housed families and children. They include HUD programs (Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, public housing, and HOME) and HHS programs (TANF, child welfare, Head Start). The fact that these children and their families have housing and other needs indicates that there are significant gaps in their assistance. This problem will not, however, be remedied by calling these children homeless and trying to meet their needs through an even smaller and more inadequate program -- and at the expense of children who literally have no roof over their heads.