Congress considering new laws designed to help the homelessby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
For the first time since Congress established a definition of homelessness 20 years ago, it is considering a change to the formula housing agencies use in deciding who receives assistance.
St. Paul, Minn. — Karie Koch is no stranger to homelessness. She is at a shelter for the second time in two years with her youngest children, after a domestic violence incident forced her to stay with family and friends.
Today she is getting help from housing counselors at the YWCA in St. Paul.
But before she could get that help, 36-year-old Koch first had to check into a homeless shelter.
"I thought I could get into transitional housing, contingent upon them having openings for me and my family. I didn't think it would be a problem but it was, and I started calling around to other transitional housing and it was the same thing: you have to be in shelter," Koch says.
Before going to the homeless shelter, Koch and her children were staying with a friend, and before that they stayed with her sister.
As a result, under current federal law, Koch and her children did not qualify as homeless.
According to the current federal definition of homelessness, people living with other family members or friends, or doubled-up, do not qualify as homeless.
Federal law states subsidized, transitional and supportive housing programs can only accept applications from people coming directly from the shelter.
Koch says if the definition was changed so that people living doubled-up were considered homeless, it would make it much easier for them to get back on their feet and into homes of their own.
"If I could've applied for it when I was staying with my sister even, me and my kids would already be in some type of housing by now," she says.
The federal definition of homelessness is part of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, co-authored by the late Minnesota Congressman Bruce Vento.
The only piece of federal legislation to address homelessness, advocates say its definition of homelessness is outdated and in need of an overhaul.
Stephanie Battle, Director of Housing and Support Services for the St. Paul YWCA, explains the problem with the definition.
"How can you say that Jane, who stays at her mom's house for one week, mom tells her to leave, goes to a cousin, then goes to a friend and then goes to another family member, how can you say that she's not homeless -- what is she?" says Battle. "She's homeless, she doesn't have a permanent place to stay."
Battle says the decision to go to a shelter is often made even more difficult because of the chronic lack of beds in Ramsey County, especially for families.
A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey found that a quarter of all requests for emergency shelter in 2006 went unmet for lack of space.
Approximately 30 percent of homeless families were turned away for the same reason.
Congress is now considering two bills, one in the Senate and one in the House, that would expand the definition of homelessness to include people staying with friends and relatives.
Advocates say they can only estimate how many people this change could affect, because those living doubled-up are not currently counted. However, estimates put that number in the hundreds of thousands.
Laurel Weir, policy director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, says expanding the definition to include people living doubled-up will likely increase the need for homeless services and funding.
"There are some groups that are concerned that expanding the definition might end up diverting resources away from people who are on the streets and particularly in need, people with serious mental illnesses and other disabilities, but we think that the solution really is to expand the resources rather than trying to pick between vulnerable groups," says Weir.
Both the Senate and House bills would boost funding for housing services and include people staying in motels and campgrounds, a situation most common in rural areas with few homeless shelters.
Weir say expanding the definition will paint a truer picture of how many people are actually homeless.
Congress is still hashing out the details of the two bills. It is possible a compromise measure could pass as early as next year.
- Morning Edition, 12/03/2007, 7:24 a.m.