America Counts Homelessness Wrong. Ohio Congress Members Plan To Change That

May 5, 2017

In March, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio's 15th district introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. Its aim is small, but important—expand the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness.

"No child should ever be without a home, let alone be forced to navigate bureaucratic red tape just to prove that they are actually homeless," Stivers said in a statement.

Diane Nilan, founder and CEO of Hear Us, Inc., a non-profit working for homeless youth has traveled all over the country to document homelessness.

She says the redefinition proposed by "The Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2017" is critical to any sort of significant change.

"HUD  has a definition of homelessness that excludes about 75 percent or more of the homeless population as we see it in this country," Nilan says. "And it would actually realign their definition to other federal definitions that are reflective of what homelessness is for families and youth."

The bill counts Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman among its supporters. Portman and Feinstein introduced a companion bill into the Senate.

According to a press release from Portman, HUD counted 206,286 people in families with children that experienced homelessness in 2015. But the Department of Education had data that showed approximately 1.2 million homeless students in the 2014-2015 school year.

"Our common-sense reforms will open up access to federal assistance programs for thousands of homeless children and youth," Portman said in a statement.

Nilan says that homelessness is in different ways by many young people and families.

"A lot of times they don't have shelters to get into, so they're doubled up with other people or in hotels," Nilan says. "At this time, HUD does not count them as homeless."

By identifying people in such circumstances that can be counted as homeless, Nilan says they can be better targeted for assistance.

"It makes a lot more financial sense to provide some support to get people back on their feet first, before letting them struggle and suffer and struggle and suffer, and we have to pay for it as taxpayers," Nilan says. "So I think it makes good fiscal sense, good human sense, and  it’s something that I think both sides of the aisle can agree on.”

While the redefinition wouldn’t come with any additional cash to the agency, Nilan says funding will be a natural consequence.

“Congress will never change their funding for HUD without HUD making a good case for it; HUD can’t make a good case for expanded homeless support without good numbers," Nilan says. "The good numbers come with a better count. Congress isn’t going to just wake up one morning and decide to give HUD more money just for the sake of HUD having more money."

Nilan isn't surprised about the bill's bipartisan appeal.

"This is a case that will be made that will really smack Congress in the face and say, ‘My gosh, we’ve got a lot of families and youth that are homeless and they’re not getting served, we need to do something, and we need more resources.’”