07/14/2012 08:27 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Homeless Children Advocates At White House Discussion Want More Obama Help

Carrie Parker likes to say that her story isn't a "typical homeless story." It started with a teenager "knocking on my door, asking for a place to stay," she said recently at her home in Adrian, Mich. The teenager was her ex-husband's daughter and she'd run away. Parker decided to adopt her, but first she needed help providing Madison with little things like school supplies. So she reached out to Beth McCullough, a social worker who helps homeless teens and runaways. Jokingly, she told McCullough that she hoped she'd never see her "for real reasons."

Six months later, a blood vessel broke in Parker's brain, and for the next three months Parker lived in a hospital. She had seizures, lost her depth perception, and could no longer hold down a job in retail or continue working on the side for a hair salon. The rent bills piled up and eventually she lost her apartment. She and Madison and Parker's biological daughter, Therese, and a second adopted child, Vanessa, spent the next two and a half months bouncing from friends' houses to homeless shelters. At some point she went back to McCullough, who provided her kids with bus fare so they could stay in their schools. "It was honestly the work that Beth does that even kept me sane," Parker said.

Beth McCullough was one of 13 people who gathered at the White House on Friday to participate in a panel discussion on child and youth homelessness. The others included Carl Siciliano, the founder of the Ali Forney Center in New York, a housing program for homeless youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and Lisa Stambolis, a nurse who provides health care to children on the streets and in shelters in Baltimore. McCullough was unlike most of the others in that she works not only with teenagers, but also with young children and their families. She said she has visited aluminum sheds to rescue children who use a blue tarp as a blanket, and has seen 26 people living in a two-bedroom apartment.

Her official title is homeless education liaison for Adrian Public Schools and homeless education coordinator for Lenawee County in Michigan. Her job can perhaps best be described as making sure that the public schools in the county obey the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2002, which requires the U.S. Department of Education to provide homeless kids with bus passes and school supplies and nutritious meals and clean clothes and anything else they might need to get a decent education.

There is a "homeless education liason" in every U.S. school district, and lately their jobs have gotten more demanding. Between 2007 and 2011, the rate of homelessness among children increased by a third, according to a report by National Center of Family Homelessness.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education contributed its statistic, reporting that the number of homeless students in the U.S. topped one million by the end of the 2010-2011 school year. "I don't know what to say about it," said McCullough.

The White House event was sponsored by the Interagency Council on the Homeless, the division of the executive branch responsible for ensuring that the federal government is doing what it can to end homelessness. Together with a number of large advocacy organizations and most of the other government departments that deal with the concerns of homeless people, the council has promoted what is known as a "housing first" model -– the idea that country's top priority with respect to the homeless should be putting homeless people in homes.

That may sound straightforward enough, and so far the administration seems to have had some success. Several months ago, it announced that homelessness among military veterans had declined by nearly 12 percent the year before, keeping the administration on track to meet its stated goal of ending veteran homelessness in 2015. A slight dip in chronic homelessness was also reported.

But many advocates call these numbers misleading, and Beth McCullough is one of them. To explain why, she gave the example of Carrie Parker, who could have perhaps spared herself and her family two and a half months of instability if she had qualified for a federal program that provides homeless families with funds for the first month's rent and a security deposit on an apartment.

The catch is that to receive that help, you need to qualify as "homeless." And while the Department of Education applies that label to any child without a permanent home, including those living in pay-by-week motels and on the couches of parents' friends, other arms of the administration do not. A new bill in Congress would require the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand its definition of homelessness to include people in Parker's situation, but it's unlikely to pass before Congress goes on vacation.

By not counting these children as homeless, the U.S. deprives them of some forms of aid, advocates say, and fails to capture the true scope of the problem. "The problem," said Jennifer Ho, deputy director of the Interagency Council on the Homeless, "is that there just are not enough resources."

McCullough would certainly agree. But she and her allies would also argue that you can't expect lawmakers to devote more resources to fighting homelessness unless they know just how many people need homes. Yes, chronic homelessness may be going down, she said, but "the face of homelessness is changing." More specifically, it's getting younger.