Bipartisan bill would help homeless children and youth

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From the Thai soccer team, to migrant children separated from their parents, to school shooting victims, the well-being of children has captured the spotlight recently. But one group of extremely vulnerable children has not yet made headlines, largely because their suffering occurs out of sight: the 1.3 million children and youth who experience homelessness each year. Their ranks have increased steadily—by 34 percent since the end of the recession. Very young children are especially affected, with Head Start programs reporting nearly double the number of children experiencing homelessness between 2007 and 2016.

Most of these children and youth are invisible to the public eye. They are not likely to be seen living on the streets because their parents fear they will be taken away by authorities. And youth who are homeless on their own fear predation from adults. Shelters aren’t an option for most homeless families and youth, because many communities don’t have shelters or because shelters are often full or have rules that exclude youth or families. Thus, homeless families and youth often stay in rundown motels or on other people’s couches or floors. These hidden homeless situations are often unsafe, putting children and youth at high risk of trafficking, violence, and neglect. Couches and motels are also inherently unstable, forcing families and youth to move frequently, often not knowing where they will stay or for how long.

{mosads}Recognizing the lived reality of family and youth homelessness, many federal program programs–public education, Head Start programs, Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs, Violence Against Women Act programs, and other programs—therefore use a definition of homelessness that encompasses the variety of homeless situations a family or youth may face. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not. HUD’s definition of homelessness is tailored to stereotypical adult homelessness, largely recognizing only people living on the streets or in shelters as homeless. This exclusive definition creates real barriers to homeless assistance for youth and families, and keeps them invisible in local, state, and national data.

HUD homeless policy also disadvantages children and youth through a one-size-fits all approach that fails to address why many families and youth become homeless in the first place, and what they need to maintain stable housing independently. Consequently, communities wishing to be competitive for HUD funding must use homeless assistance funds almost exclusively for service models for which most families and youth are ineligible, or that set them up to fail.   

In a rare display of bicameral bipartisanship, lawmakers have come together to address these challenges through the Homeless Children and Youth Act (S. 611/H.R. 1511). Led by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Reps. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) and Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), this common sense legislation will align HUD’s definition of homelessness with those of other federal agencies and permit communities to use HUD homeless funding more flexibly to assess and serve the most vulnerable homeless children, youth and families identified in their area. It also allows communities to provide assistance using models tailored to the unique needs of each homeless population in their community, including those most appropriate and effective for youth and families. Finally, it allows communities to get a better picture of homelessness among various populations by increasing data visibility. The legislation, which was the subject of a June Financial Services subcommittee hearing, is set for full committee mark up in the House Financial Services committee on Tuesday.

Over 50 national organizations and hundreds of state and local organizations support the legislation. Supporters include those who work closest with homeless families and youth: family homeless providers, runaway and homeless youth service providers, early childhood and K-12 education service providers, child policy advocates and child welfare system providers. They understand homeless assistance should be determined by vulnerability, not simplistically by where families or youth happen to lay their head at night.

While the legislation focuses on children and youth, it will ultimately reduce homelessness among all populations. Child and youth homelessness are a key contributor to adult homelessness. A recent national study found that youth homelessness often starts early in life, with the majority of homeless young adults having experienced homelessness in childhood or adolescence. Other research demonstrates that youth homelessness is by far the largest pathway into entrenched single adult homelessness. Thus, this legislation contributes to long-term prevention of a complex problem. 

We urge Congress to pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act quickly, so that today’s homeless children and youth do not become tomorrow’s homeless adults.

Barbara Duffield is Executive Director of Schoolhouse Connection. Cara Baldari is Senior Policy Director of Family Economics for Housing and Homelessness at First Focus Campaign for Children.

Tags Dave Loebsack Dianne Feinstein Rob Portman Steve Stivers

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