I want to raise the ante of Suzette Hackney’s USA Today opinion column, “COVID-19 could devastate the homeless. How will America pick up the pieces?” (Jan. 30, 2021)
In addition to worrying about the impact of COVID-19 on people experiencing homelessness, and about the extreme undercount for HUD’s annual point-in-time count, it’s even more concerning that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has persisted at a gross dismissal of those experiencing homelessness in the U.S, ignoring millions of families and individuals who have no place to live.
HUD’s refusal to acknowledge this far greater scope of homelessness is at the root of why so many end up in various forms of homelessness. HUD fails to acknowledge the connection between homeless children and youth who then, for a number of reasons, end up on the streets as adults, not to mention endangered by COVID-19 and a multitude of other perils. It’s way past time for changing the paradigm of homelessness (also the title of a book my colleagues and I wrote).
Despite HUD-funded agencies’ best efforts to comply with the mandated street census, the results vastly downplay the scope of homelessness in the U.S. The suffering extends from babies to the elderly.
To be sure, many adults on the streets today experienced homelessness as a child. In the Journal of Children and Poverty, SchoolHouse Connection (SchoolHouse in Session) executive director Barbara Duffield, wrote:
“…in Minnesota, more than half (52%) of homeless adults surveyed first became homeless by the time they were age 24, and over one-third (36%) first became homeless at or before age 18 (Pittman et al. 2020). When homelessness for so many adults first occurs in childhood, it is not rare, brief, and one-time — the high-level definition of ‘ending homelessness’ per the current national policy (U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness 2018).”
No one ever imagined growing up to be homeless, nor do people “choose” this as a lifestyle. The frequency, duration and traumatic circumstances of a child’s period of homelessness has a direct impact on their mental and physical health as adults, their productivity and self-sufficiency, and that of generations beyond. Pandemics and other health threats add to the toxic stress of homelessness.
HUD’s extraordinarily narrow definition excludes millions of families, youth and individuals who lost housing, experience hardships, and have nowhere to turn for help.
To think for a moment that “only” 500,000 or so people are homeless (HUD’s estimate) flies in the face of reality. Schools across the nation have identified 1.5 million students without homes (pre-pandemic), not including their older/younger siblings, parents/guardians, and missing those students who go unidentified for a number of reasons. My organization, HEAR US Inc., suggests that upward of seven million children and youth are homeless.
Recently, I interviewed Jamie, a courageous and articulate mother of 2 children, in a Raleigh motel because of homelessness. The father of the children is disabled, and their youngest boy struggles with severe autism. The four of them occupy a dingy, cramped room equipped with nothing but a dorm-size refrigerator and microwave. They’ve been there nine months, at a cost of more than $315 a week. Do the math. Over $9,000 to a slum motel owner.
The family wrestles with scraping together that money each week, sometimes daily, knowing that a missed payment means they will land on the family-unfriendly streets of North Carolina’s capital city. Unacceptable, especially as an intact family with a hyperactive boy. Jamie, pre-covid, was a self-employed dog groomer in a rural community, edged out of unemployment and stimulus payments by the Tar Heel state’s red tape.
This family breadwinner can’t work because virtual learning keeps her prisoner in this crappy motel room so she can guide her son’s online “class” time. When she’s free, Jamie hightails it over to the local plasma collection operation as often as she can, getting between $50–100 for her blood. Or she’ll humbly stand on a busy street corner begging for bucks from the endless stream of drivers, some judgmental, some compassionate.
The crux of HUD’s homelessness definition impacts Jamie and countless (because HUD doesn’t count them) families and others outside HUD’s narrow definition. They cannot qualify for HUD assistance, meager as it is, while paying for their own motel room. HUD doesn’t consider them homeless. As if staying in the hell-hole that Jamie’s family precariously exists in is an adequate place to live. For the few weeks they received agency support, they were considered homeless. Confusing? Yes.
The welcome change of national leadership now includes HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge in charge of our country’s beleaguered and misguided housing assistance efforts. Maybe we will finally change the paradigm of homelessness and address the widespread housing needs of the millions without a place to call home.
My 15-years of backroads travels chronicling family homelessness has given me plenty of evidence that picking up the pieces will require more than bandaids. (My new book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America, describes what I’ve seen, and includes eye-opening and heart-wrenching stories from families in homeless situations.)
Our leaders must proceed with the momentum that would exist if their families were among those ravaged by housing and food insecurity, health issues, educational inequity, and the ongoing and inexcusable neglect of overt racism that fuels these injustices. Anything less will doom millions more to this hellish existence.