A well-intended bill that would expand the federal definition of homelessness would, without more money, make it even harder for some of the most vulnerable people in Ohio and the rest of the country to get the help they need.
Under the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act, introduced last month, an estimated 900,000 young adults and families with children would become eligible for federal assistance. In the Senate, Ohio Republican Rob Portman and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein are sponsoring the bill.
But the bipartisan legislation provides no new money for homeless programs run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees such federal spending. Even now HUD-funded homeless programs assist only a fraction of the people who are eligible for them.
“Making more people eligible for benefits without additional funding is really a con game,” Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, told The Blade’s editorial page. “We’re letting public officials get away with making a false promise.”
HUD-funded homeless programs reach only about one in five of those who are eligible, Mr. Faith said. The proposed bill would expand the number of people eligible for already oversubscribed programs by 10 times or more.
Ohio’s homeless population, at any given time, is estimated at 12,325 people. Local advocates estimate Toledo’s homeless population at about 1,000, but the number of people who are homeless in the city at some time during the year is probably three times higher.
Nationally, an estimated 610,000 people are homeless at any time, according to HUD; more than a third of them are people in families. Those families, under the current definition of homelessness, include people who live on the street, in shelters, in cars, and under bridges.
The Homeless Children and Youth Act would align HUD’s definition of child and family homelessness with the U.S. Department of Education’s, which has counted more than 1 million children nationwide as homeless. The bill would make HUD homeless aid available to poorly housed families who live doubled up with other households or in motels. In 2012, more than 7 million households, including more than 2 million children and youths, fell into that category.
Children and families who live in such dangerous and deplorable conditions need assistance, and it’s perfectly appropriate to consider them homeless. Too often, they are disconnected from social service providers and are especially vulnerable to pimps, traffickers, and gangs.
With current funding, however, they would get little or no assistance from HUD programs, and any help they received would come at the expense of families who are literally homeless and on the street. At least HUD’s current definition of homelessness targets scarce resources on those who need them most.
With HUD’s homeless programs already underfunded and overwhelmed, the politicians who propose this change should have the courage and foresight to push for more funding as well. Without it, the Homeless Children and Youth Act would do more harm than good.