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Defining Homelessness: The Politics of Numbers and the Power of Definitions

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Right now, a debate is raging among Federal policymakers about how to define homelessness—and about who counts as homeless. While this may seem like an administrative matter or a wording issue, it isn’t.

How homelessness is defined in our Federal policies has a huge effect on who has access to housing, education, and other critical services. Certain homeless people—particularly homeless families with children—are caught in the middle of this definition debate, losing access to some of the most important services for their children, and standing to lose even more if other Federal agencies follow the example of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In an article entitled “Current Federal Policy on Homelessness: A Failure of Imagination,” Barbara Duffield, the Policy Director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, uses the example of a homeless family to explain the conflict. “Imagine that you’ve lost your housing. You’ve been evicted. You’re fleeing domestic violence. You don’t have money to rent an apartment or buy a house.”

What do you do when you have children? There are multiple barriers you will likely encounter: There are long lines at the shelters. There are no shelter arrangements for families. You and your partner will have to sleep separately and you might even be separated from your children. Like most homeless families, your first choice will probably not be the streets or in the shelters. Instead, you might stay with a friend or a family member for a little while, find a room in a hotel for as long as you can, and do the best to keep your family together.

Under these circumstances, you would be eligible for assistance from a few key Federal agencies: the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Justice. But—because you chose not to live on the streets or in the shelters, in order to protect your children and maintain the integrity of your family—you would not be eligible for homeless assistance programs offered by HUD.

With their new focus on “chronic homelessness,” HUD programs now target only one type of homeless person: the “unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” The idea is that, once the “most difficult” cases of homelessness are resolved, resources will be freed up for the rest of the homeless population. In the meantime, those homeless people that make up “the rest” are rendered ineligible for homeless services and left with even fewer options for their families.

In addition, there is tremendous pressure for other Federal agencies—including those listed above—to follow suit and narrow their definition of homelessness to match the HUD definition. Consider the implications of that: homeless families no longer eligible for Department of Education programs that help their children stay in school, simply because they cannot access the shelter system; homeless youth no longer eligible for services from the Health and Human Services Agency that help them deal with the trauma of homelessness; and homeless adults who, according to this definition, are not “chronically” homeless and thus not eligible for supportive services that will help them avoid eviction or future episodes of homelessness.

Consider also the politics of numbers and the power of definitions. As we know in San Francisco, the policy world is focused on the numbers: the street count, the number of people receiving General Assistance, etc. In this way, the “success” of a policy is typically equated with how it changes the numbers, such that if homeless numbers go down, the policy is a success, regardless of what that means for homeless people. We should be deeply suspicious of a new policy that defines away a substantial portion of the homeless population—and cuts them off from services—without doing anything to address the poverty and lack of housing that create homelessness to begin with.

For more information, see here and here.


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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