Advocates for poor children have renewed efforts to expand the definition of homelessness used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development so that youth considered homeless by other federal agencies can qualify for federal housing assistance that is currently off limits to them.
Organizations are pushing for passage of the Homeless Children and Youth Act, reintroduced Tuesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. A variety of child welfare organizations also supported the bill when it was introduced last year.
U.S. public schools reported a record 1.3 million homeless students in the 2012-13 school year, a nearly 8 percent increase over the previous year, I reported in October. But many of those children don’t qualify for assistance from HUD because that agency’s definition of homelessness is much more narrow than that used by the Department of Education, advocates say.
Of the homeless children reported by schools, about 75 percent were “doubled up,” sharing homes with other families. Another 16 percent lived in shelters, 6 percent lived in hotels or motels, and 3 percent went without shelter, schools reported.
For the first time, the Education Department required schools to report whether homeless students were living with their parents or on their own. The report classified nearly 76,000 homeless students as “unaccompanied.”
Current law allows families and unaccompanied youth in temporary living situations—such as motels or sharing homes with others—to qualify for assistance if they prove they moved twice in 60 days and that they did not have permanent housing for those 60 days and that they meet a number of conditions that would make it difficult for them to secure permanent housing.
Children’s advocates say that documentation is cumbersome and arbitrary and that housing programs prioritize the needs of childless adults over children and families.
The Homeless Children and Youth Act would expand HUD’s definition to more closely mirror that used by other federal agencies. Under the bill, HUD would consider children homeless and eligible for programs if they are due to lose permanent housing within 30 days, rather than the 14 days allowed under current law. It would also allow local housing agencies to qualify families for assistance if they are sharing housing or living temporarily in motels or if they are certified as homeless under another federal program, such as the Child Nutrition Act or the Violence Against Women Act. The bill would also allow local agencies to prioritize children and families in providing assistance.
“Only one in 10 homeless children in this country is eligible for federal housing assistance, and that’s shameful. Under the narrow HUD definition, even children living with traffickers because they have nowhere else to go would be ineligible for help,” Sen. Feinstein said in a statement. “The harmful effects of homelessness on children’s educational and emotional development are clear. Ensuring children have a permanent roof over their heads will have a long-term benefit on their lives and our nation’s future.”
In November, the National Center on Family Homelessness released a report that called for multi-sector efforts to combat the causes of child homelessness. In a December story, I covered one such cooperative project, a pilot program in which a highly mobile elementary school partnered with a housing authority to stabilize families in an effort to increase student achievement.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.