Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Who is Homeless According to the Federal Government? Not Even the Federal Government Can Decide!

Harry Truman once said that he needed to find a one armed economist. When asked why, he said that every time he would ask any economist a question, the economist would say, “On the one hand… but on the other hand…” and he could never get a straight answer, hence he needed a one armed economist… Now good old Harry could have been talking about many other areas of government policy too. It is many times really difficult to get a simple, straight answer! 

Since we are MDHA, we are very interested in the basic question, who is homeless? That might seem like a simple question, to which there is a simple answer. Far from it! Obviously, someone who lives unsheltered on the street is experiencing homelessness, but what about someone who lives in transitional housing? According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the latter are also considered homeless, even though they are sheltered. 

What about chronic homelessness? Is someone who has lived on the streets for a year or more not chronically homeless? Well, not necessarily, since the federal definition of “chronically homeless” is not met unless the person has a disability. (Though, as I often say to people, if I am on the street for a year, and I have not developed a disability, I would think there was something really wrong with me!)

OK, but at least the federal government as a whole agrees what the definition of homeless is, right? Wrong again! Different government departments disagree even on that basic fact. Some of the most glaring examples are the differences between how HUD and the U.S. Department of Education define homeless children and youth. Just one of the differences has to do with what is referred to as “doubling up”.

Millions of Americans, due to poverty and related conditions, live with other families, in a residence not their own, and are one step away from the street or a shelter. Are these people homeless? According to HUD, they are “at risk” of homelessness, but they are not homeless. The Department of Education, however, by law, must consider children and youth, who are, “sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason,” i.e. “doubled up” as homeless.
Obviously, this is very important and complicated issue, that goes far beyond what a blog post can address. We encourage you to check out the website of Hear Us Inc.,, to learn more, and educate yourself about this very important issue.

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