Do we Understand Homelessness? | By: Leslie Scott

My attention was recently captured by a PBS New Hour article titled “How Do You Define ‘homeless’ in America”. This is an ongoing question many homeless advocates find themselves asking and trying to answer. Depending on where you work or with what population, the answer often changes. Not just from person to person or agencies, but there is also a lack of homogeneity within state laws, federal laws, and government programs. The United States Federal Government currently has three different definitions for homelessness, each with different criteria and purpose.

McKinney-Vento Act or U.S. Department of Education Definition of Homelessness: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Definition: Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) Definition:
Section 725(2) of the McKinney-Vento Act10 defines “homeless children and youths” as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence… (U.S. Department of Education , 2017).

 

This definition does not include those in foster care, transitioning out of foster care, or those couch surfing (moving from couch to couch, due to lack of funds for safe/stable housing) (Dr. Hoback & Anderson; U.S. Department of Education , 2017).

 

This definition is currently used by various US federal programs (U.S. Department of Education , 2017).

HUD operates under categories of homelessness, ranging from Cat 1: Literally homeless, Cat 2: Imminent Risk of Homeless, Cat 3: Homeless Under other Federal Statutes, and Cat 4: Fleeing/Attempting to Flee DV (Homelessness Assistance, n.d.).

 

This definition is used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine eligibility for programs and to determine which programs would qualify for funding from HUD.

Persons “not more than 21 years of age…for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative and who have no other safe alternative living arrangement” (youth.gov, n.d.).

 

This definition is currently used for youth serving programs.

 

Homeless services (including Huckleberry House) have to operate within that system, often resulting in various intake criteria amongst programs within an agency. This prevents not only individuals and families from accessing services, but also may eliminate them from data measurements of the homeless population, reducing the overall awareness and funding projections. This leads many to speculate, if we do not understand homelessness or misrepresent the need of homeless, how can we tackle this issue?

If we were able to operate under one single definition, not only would ALL homeless programs operate under the same funding guidelines, but so would research projects and annual counts which create the yearly data figures for the homeless population. All while creating a standardized understanding of the word “homeless”. Huckleberry House’s belief is that a universal definition of homelessness would make it easier to provide services to the homeless and help to eradicate homelessness.

Infograph homeless 3 Infograph homeless 4

Leslie Scott, LSW CTP-C
Family Support Program Therapist Intern
Candidate, Master of Social Administration, Case Western Reserve University