USICH Blog

11/05/2012 - Words never hurt? Toward a More Productive Public Discourse on Homeless Children and Youth

The schoolyard chant “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” rings hollow when I hear trusted allies arguing about the “right” definition of homelessness.

To the general public this must seem silly…fighting over definitions of homelessness. Some allies have observed that all this in-fighting can actually diminish political will.  It’s been blamed as the primary reason it took more than a decade to pass the HEARTH Act that re-authorized McKinney-Vento homeless assistance programs.  A seemingly innocuous (some might even say bureaucratic) response from one ally recently provoked a backlash from another ally. I am not pointing fingers at either as this discourse is sadly and repeatedly played out all across the country.

While I believe that I understand the good intentions behind all the various points of view, I also see the opening for us to come together and, perhaps,be more careful in our language so that we are creating more allies and inspiring greater political will to end homelessness – not having folks throw up their hands and walk away.  I’m going to work through an example because it might point us toward the path forward.

Here’s what a local CoC (Continuum of Care) administrator wrote in response to local coverage of the dramatic increase in homeless school children:

The major difference is that under HUD guidelines only persons who are literally homeless are included in the [local HUD Continuum of Care] counts.  This includes people who are living in the street or other places not intended for human habitation, in homeless emergency shelters, or transitional housing programs for homeless persons who came from the street or an emergency shelter.  It does not include people who are “doubled-up”. Those persons are considered at-risk of homelessness, but are not included in the data provided by the CoC. 

The following terms are the ones that caused the heartburn:

The major difference is that under HUD guidelines only persons who are literally homeless are included in the CoC counts.  This includes people who are living in the street or other places not intended for human habitation, in homeless emergency shelters, or transitional housing programs for homeless persons who came from the street or an emergency shelter.  It does not include people who are “doubled-up”.  Those persons are considered at-risk of homelessness, but are not included in the data provided by the CoC. 

Here’s what would have been a more productive response:

The major difference is that under HUD guidelines only persons who are living in the street or other places not intended for human habitation, in homeless emergency shelters, or transitional housing programs for homeless persons who came from the street or an emergency shelter are included in the counts.  It does not include homeless people who are “doubled-up,” living precariously in other people’s homes or motels.  Those persons are not considered by HUD statutes so are not included in the data provided by the CoC. 

The final version would read:

The major difference is that under HUD guidelines only persons who are living in the street or other places not intended for human habitation, in homeless emergency shelters, or transitional housing programs for homeless persons who came from the street or an emergency shelter are included in the counts.  It does not include homeless people who are “doubled-up,” living precariously in other people’s homes or motels.  Those persons are not considered homeless by HUD statutes so are not included in the data provided by the CoC. 

We all believe that children should be stably housed – not living on the streets, in shelters, in motels, or precariously with family or friends. All of these situations do not provide the child with safety, stability, or the well-being that comes from living in a permanent home. I think it’s time that we were all more careful to use language that more accurately describes the impact of homelessness on children, regardless if our lens is through the Education or the HUD statutory definitions. It will take significantly greater appropriations by Congress to resolve the housing affordability crisis. Let’s rally together and work for more affordable housing and let’scommit to better articulatethe extent of children’s needs and the real solutions (i.e. housing, services, healthcare, and education) that meet those needs. 

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