The Full Scope of Homelessness

Disability benefits. Domestic violence.  Tent cities.  Homelessness cuts across many different issues, and these are just a few of them, taken from the topics addressed in this month’s In Just Times.

As I wrote about in my recent Huffington Post article, homelessness affects a wide swath of the U.S. population—and the breadth and depth of its reach is increasing, as foreclosures and unemployment continue to take their toll on low-income and, increasingly, middle-income families and individuals. You wouldn’t necessarily know this from looking at some of the data released by HUD, which most recently reported a 2.2 percent decrease in the numbers.  That’s because HUD defines homelessness very narrowly, excluding many people without homes.

The definition of homelessness has implications for policy, as demonstrated by the current controversy over an effort to expand it to cover families and children who are now eligible for services from the Department of Education (ED), thanks to that agency’s broader definition.  The narrower HUD definition excludes many of the children recognized as homeless by ED.  This means that, while they can receive education services, they and their families may not be eligible for HUD housing help.

In addition to this real-life, on-the-ground impact, the definition of homelessness also has implications for advocacy.  Proponents of the narrow HUD definition argue that housing resources, already insufficient to meet the need, will be stretched even thinner if the definition is expanded.  They’re right, of course.  But the solution isn’t to ignore the extent of the problem by defining it narrowly.

Instead, the solution is to recognize the full scope of the crisis and advocate to increase resources so that they do meet the overall need.  Acknowledging the many different issues involved and kinds of people affected is also critical: it broadens the coalition of potential advocates.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be rolling out a campaign to build an expanded coalition of supporters for a broad set of solutions to homelessness.  In the meantime, please join us in supporting a definition that does justice to the problem.

– Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director

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