Stop and Think about the Homeless Children and Youth Act

This is a repost of a blog post written by Iain DeJong, President and CEO of OrgCode Consulting, Inc., which works with nonprofits, government, private companies and non-governmental organizations to create positive social change. It was originally posted on the OrgCode website.

Whether you work with unaccompanied youth, families, or single adults experiencing homelessness, I want you to stop and think about the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act, S.256 and its implications. Frankly it is one of those pieces of legislation that sound awesome until you pull back the curtain. It is not mom and apple pie. There are implications to this that we need to dissect and consider from a funding, operational, and policy perspective. It is possible to think critically about the bill and still be supportive of ending homelessness amongst youth, as well as ending homelessness for children and their families. And yes, there are implications to communities and service providers that customarily do not work with youth or families. S.256 impacts all people experiencing homelessness, funders, service providers, and Continua of Care.

Here are the highlights of S.256:

  • The definition of homelessness expands so that all poor families living with others on a longer-term basis for economic reasons are included. What this means is that many, many more millions of additional families and youth become eligible for HUD homeless assistance.
  • Communities would be required to do counts of the number of families and youth doubled-up for economic reasons.
  • Strategic use of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) resources would revert back to a time where services were not guided by evidence because of who it demands be served and how.

Some of that you may agree with and some you may not. Consider that:

  • There are NO new resources attached to the bill and the nation is already short a couple hundred million to effectively serve existing unsheltered families and unaccompanied children and youth.
  • The bill is likely to be attached to other legislation, meaning the route of usual discussion and debate in the political process is not there.

But that is not all that I am worried about.

I think the people at HUD have done an amazing job in recent years establishing a national agenda about population groups to serve and prioritize. In effect their policy and funding has moved us away from creaming and helped us get to the nuts and bolts of people that need services the most, not just those that want services the most. It has had the impact of getting service providers to elevate their game and learn how to best serve individuals and families with complex, co-occurring life circumstances, while remaining focused on housing. Data and evidence have become critical to communities learning how to best house and support people.

I fear that, if passed, communities will start to revert to a time where resources are aligned to families with lower and moderate issues prior to being used for those families and individuals (including unaccompanied youth) that have the highest needs and issues. I liken it to an emergency department of a hospital choosing to use its resources to help set the broken leg of the 8 year old that fell off her bike before helping the 57 year old that had a heart attack because children are the future, and the 57 year old is an overweight smoker who has had three previous heart attacks.

I have seen, in recent years, considerable improvement in how data is used to help understand homelessness in a given community and then reorient funding to address the deepest needs. S.256 moves us more towards an emotional response to the issue more than a data driven one, in my opinion. But data requirements that come with it, like understanding the number of households that are living in doubled-up situations on a longer-term basis for economic reasons, are labor intensive to even try to address and dang near impossible to do accurately. If you thought there may be some flaws with your Point-in-Time numbers, you ain’t seen nothing.

I also think the Act confuses poverty and homelessness. Are the two related? Yes. Are they the same thing? No. About 49 million Americans live in poverty, while at any given time about 600,000 experience homelessness (using HUD’s existing definition; unsheltered or staying in homeless programs). Those numbers are not even close to being the same. Almost all of the former number is housed, while all of the latter number is homeless. What will happen is homeless resources will be diverted to address households that are precariously housed, but housed nonetheless.

In the past few years a ton of work has gone into getting communities to work as systems. I fear S.256 gets us more back to silos and less into systems-thinking. Instead of looking at the entire homeless population comprehensively and organizing services by acuity, this legislation takes us back to what I have often referred to as “pet population” approach where decisions are not driven by data, but are inherently driven by feelings of a deserving and undeserving poor.

Would more resources help communities better meet the needs of unaccompanied youth and children in families experiencing homelessness? Yes. But let us be pragmatic and realistic and start with households that are unsheltered and languishing within shelter.

Are there many households living in poverty? Yes. But let us rethink income supports and government benefits, access to employment, and food security. It would be terribly unfortunate to use homeless resources to combat these structural issues. S.256 is misguided in wanting to address these fundamental problems through homeless resources, and without additional funding. I also feel it will let elected officials off the hook by not engaging them in the structural issues and not having to provide additional funding (which is one of the greatest measures of priority for a person in office – where they put your tax dollars).

Should we improve services to youth and families experiencing homelessness? Yes. I will submit that some communities have put the needs of chronically homeless single adults above the needs of all others and that is a problem. I argue that we need to look at the depth of needs of all people experiencing homelessness regardless of whether they are a single adult, family or unaccompanied youth and allocate resources accordingly rather than considering sub-populations in isolation.

I urge you to pause and think of the broader implications if this becomes law. We need a more thoughtful, involved process rather than tagging this onto an unrelated appropriations bill. Now is the time to contact your elected officials with urgency and purpose to let them know you support ending homelessness and this Act, while it sounds good, actually does more harm than good.