July 18, 2008

Who Is Homeless?

by Kate Perkins, Community Blogger.

At the District City Council's hearing on the "Housing Waiting Elimination Act of 2008," District of Columbia Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Kelly announced that 9,348 of the 23,418 households on the housing waiting list claim to be homeless. A household that applies as homeless gets priority on the housing waiting list over those who are already housed, even if those who have housing are living in inadequate housing.

Given the large number of apparently homeless households in the District, many social workers and public officials (Marion Barry at the hearing Monday July 14th) alike openly question whether over 9,000 households are actually homeless or not.

This begs the question—what qualifies as homeless? According to the office of Housing and Urban Development, a homeless individual is:

  1. an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
  2. an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is —

  • a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);
  • an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
  • a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

This definition is much broader than it used to be. Originally, only those individuals who were sleeping on the streets or in a shelter qualified as homeless. In May of 2006, many nonprofit organizations and coalitions that served the nations' homeless pressured HUD for an expanded definition of homelessness, saying homelessness is much broader than just those traditionally seen as homeless, living outside or in emergency shelters. The coalition argued that people who are staying with family members, "doubling up" with others or staying long term in motels also qualify as homeless because their housing situations are the result of economic difficulties or a loss of housing. The definition has since been changed currently to incorporate people in these situations.

Sometimes termed "couch surfing," living with others doesn't fit under a traditional picture of homelessness but can often leave individuals out of the scope of social programs, without access to case managers or others who could provide comprehensive supportive services for suitable housing. Similar to people in the shelter system or living on the street, homeless living with friends or family or in motels are often moving frequently and experiencing constant instability.

What difference does the definition of homelessness make? Actually quite a bit when we consider who gets social services—and in particular access to public housing or Section VIII housing choice vouchers. Because qualifying as "homeless" bumps individuals up to the top of the waiting list, many applying for public housing and housing choice vouchers claim homelessness on their original applications. Speaking with someone at the DCHA office, I learned that people did not have to give proof of homelessness (usually in the form of a letter from a shelter either stating that the individual lives at the shelter or could not stay because of a lack of space) until their name comes up for housing on the list, which can be several years after their application time. The person I spoke with said that essentially everyone who applied for public housing or housing choice vouchers claimed homelessness knowing it would advance their application.

This is disturbing on several levels. Is the homeless designation on the waiting list a valid measure of anything? Because individuals do not have to have any proof to claim homelessness and the penalty for not being able to prove homelessness is only having one's name put on the bottom of the list, many more people are likely claiming homelessness than are actually homeless. But with such a broad definition of homelessness to include those living with family and friends because of economic hardship—it is difficult to make a judgment call on the situation.

For other initiatives such as the Housing First initiative that seeks to house vulnerable homeless in the District, the vastness of homelessness on the waiting list, however, makes little difference, given the initiative's focus on the chronically homeless which are often individuals with severe mental or physical disabilities. Also the Housing First initiative will only serve about 400 households per year, unable to touch the long waiting list any time soon.
Are there over 9,000 households who are homeless in the District? Isn't there something wrong with the affordable housing situation when families are encouraged either openly or indirectly to claim homelessness regardless of their situation because of the hopeless housing crisis?


Andy said...

People have to verify they are homeless once their name comes up on the waiting list, so I am not sure what the harm is here.

Matt Siemer said...

Hey andy,

The harm isn't in people trying to get ahead on the wait list by marking that they are homeless--the disturbing situation highlighted here is that 1) it's hard now to get good numbers on exactly how many homeless people are currently in DC, and 2) our housing wait list is so bad that people who want any chance at housing in their lifetime (average time spent on the wait list: 8 years) feel that their only recourse is to play the system.

Not to mention that even folks who mark "homeless" still have to wait up to two years on the list. Pretty bad. There are some measures being taken to try and trim that down--the latest is Marion Barry's Wait List Elimination Act which we're still looking through.