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'THE' Count -- HUD Ignores Millions of Homeless Persons


While “Melissa” and her precocious 2-yr. old daughter await eviction from the shabby “efficiency apartment” they’re squatting in, fervent preparations are underway in 

broken baby

Savannah and nationwide for next week’s Point-In-Time (PIT) count of homeless persons. Agency staff, aided by dedicated community volunteers and formerly homeless persons, will fan out in the dark of night, seeking to identify as many homeless individuals as possible. But they’ll not count Melissa and her baby, or hundreds of homeless families in this bucolic port city, nor will millions of other children, parents, and youth on their own be counted.

This yearly exercise, in futility it seems to me, is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD. Agencies receiving some of the relative pittance of homeless assistance grants ($2.2 billion total) need to earnestly participate in these counts. On the surface, it makes sense. The numbers get crunched and HUD lets Congress know how many people without homes live on our streets.

But, the value of this report, 2011 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), is according to some, not worth the paper it’s printed on, or not worth the massive assembly of well-intentioned men and women tromping through dark corners in their cities and towns. Why is this a waste of good effort? One little reason: it ignores most children with their families who lack a place to call home.

In the past dozen or so years, HUD has weaseled out of the housing-the-homeless business. They’ve managed to tighten the definition of homelessness to exclude the bulk of the harder to serve population—primarily families. Why? Too many, in too many complicated situations that would require too much effort and money to address their housing needs is one reason. 

Besides, HUD never really caught onto the reality of family homelessness, and acted like the bachelor kid-adverse uncle when forced to deal with this population.

HUD narrowed their focus—to those they disgraced by labeling “chronic,” the single men and women allegedly responsible for every piece of litter and pile of poop in downtown business areas. Hundreds of millions a year are spent on men’s shelters. And, in the meantime, displaced families desperately turn to any possible place to sleep because many cities and towns have no shelters, or their inadequate supply of shelter beds also come with barriers, like age limits on the boys in the families, unrealistic time limits, religious requirements, and curfews that prevent the parent from working 3rd shift jobs.

Two cities I’ve recently visited that do a commendable job on some aspects of addressing homelessness, Mobile, AL and Savannah, GA, have no emergency shelter for families.None. Zip. If your family becomes homeless tonight, tough. And it is tough, because your children can easily be snatched by child protective services.

So many cities and towns lack emergency family housing options that I’ve almost become numbed to this terrible oversight.This MAP illustrates the problem. Family shelters typically end up as the last ditch effort in communities that spent lots of time, energy and money on housing a handful of “chronics.”

The PIT count doesn’t include families that have lost housing and are in motels, eking out their overpriced stays. It overlooks those tenuously doubled-up with friends, relatives, or scarcely-known acquaintances, or, like Melissa, precariously staying in substandard housing.

The U.S. Dept. of Education’s most recent census of students identified as homeless indicates 1,031,069, a number that doesn’t reflect older/younger siblings or parents. HUD’s report to Congress last year was 636,017. Um, quite a difference. And why does it matter?

Grossly inaccurate counts greatly reduce not only emergency shelter, justifying the inadequate resources allocated by Congress for more comprehensive family housing options, sending families spinning in a vortex of survival. Among other parts of this crisis, the little babies and toddlers, in the prime stage of development, get the short end of their parents’ attention and nurturing, thus the kids grow up less likely to succeed. And we all pay.

Homeless kids,and families, count. Now if we can just get HUD to count them. Then they can turn to Congress with some real numbers.

(Pat LaMarche and I will be on our HEAR US IncBabes of Wrath month-long, 5000 mile journey through the southwest starting Monday, 1/21/13. I’ll be posting here every couple days. Look forward to having you along for the ride!)