Homeless Advocates Divided Over Bill Aimed At Helping Kids

02/11/2012 09:06 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

Homeless kids have the right to an education. That's the basic rationale behind the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987, a law meant to ensure that homeless kids receive the same quality of schooling as everyone else.

But with more families losing their homes as a result of the lingering effects of the recession, many homeless advocates say the law doesn't go far enough to help them. Yet attempts by these advocates to change things have led to a bitter debate within the field of homelessness advocacy itself.

At the center of the debate is the question of who qualifies for government-subsidized housing. As it stands, anyone defined as homeless by the Department of Housing and Urban Development can apply for housing aid from the government. The problem is that HUD's definition leaves out thousands who lack permanent homes -- people who sleep on the couches of friends and relatives, or many who live in cramped motel rooms. Before approving aid in these cases, HUD requires proof that their arrangements are very tentative: either documentation of a lack of funds to afford a hotel room for more two weeks, or confirmation from the friend offering the couch that this setup can not be permanent. Providing such documentation is often a difficult hurdle for people living under these circumstances.

Families with children make up a large part of this population. As the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, homeless families have been especially affected by the recent recession. Since the economic downturn, according the Department of Education, the number of homeless children has increased by 38 percent, to almost 1 million (many experts consider this a low estimate). But by HUD's definition, only about 30 percent of such children, about 300,000, are considered homeless.

In December, six children testified at a congressional hearing on H.R. 32, a bill aimed at expanding HUD's homeless definition and introduced by Republican Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) The children talked about the hardships of sleeping four or five to a room in cheap motels and bouncing from one relative's living room to the next. They said that the resulting stress had caused them to struggle in school. Yet because they fail to meet HUD's criteria for homelessness, they and thousands of others like them aren't eligible for housing help.

On Tuesday, the bill made it out of a markup session of Biggert's Financial Services Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity. If the legislation is passed this year, HUD would count these kids as homeless. The responsibility of identifying homeless children would fall to organizations that already track them for the public schools; this would bring the homeless children count closer to the Department of Education's estimate of 1 million. Supporters of the bill include the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

But not all advocates for the homeless are on board. The Corporation for Supportive Housing and the National Alliance to End Homelessness have opposed the bill, saying that it would expand the rolls of kids eligible for HUD aid without increasing the amount of funds. They worry that homeless people with the most pressing needs would suffer as a result.

"Our understanding is that this would have a bad impact on the worse-off kids," said Steve Berg, an executive for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, "kids who are living on the streets and in abandoned buildings and in backs of cars." Homeless advocates should devote their energy to getting Congress to enlarge the budget of HUD and other agencies that help the homeless, Berg said.

If Berg and his allies are now in the uncomfortable position of fighting a measure clearly intended to help homeless people, the same is true of several Democrats in the House. Representatives Maxine Waters, Mel Watt, and Luis Gutierrez -- all established liberals -- criticized the bill at the markup session.

To make the bill more palatable, Waters offered an amendment that would provide more funding for homeless children.

"Unless we add the Waters amendment with additional resources for those kids, someone who is currently getting services is going to end up on the street," Gutierrez said. "This is not an easy issue, but the conversation we need to have isn't about how to count homeless kids; it is about how we get resources to those kids."

Yet, Republicans who favor the measure, in part because they believe it could help streamline HUD's bureaucracy, are unlikely to go for Waters' proposal.

Some ardent backers of the bill dismiss Waters' amendment as unrealistic. Even if Democrats regain control of the House, they say, politicians this year will never agree to spend more money on homeless people -- unless they comprehend the full scope of the problem. And that won't happen unless they get an accurate count of the country's homeless families, they say.

"Congress doesn't really think it's a problem," said Diane Nilan, a prominent advocate for homeless families who attended the December hearing. "They don't see the vulnerable families that are just hanging on."

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