On April 29, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) held a hearing to examine HUD’s efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness.
In her opening remarks, Subcommittee Chair Susan Collins (R-ME) stated, “Successfully ending youth homelessness cannot be done with federal funds alone. It requires cooperation and coordination across federal agencies, at all different levels of government, and in partnership with philanthropic and non-profit organizations. To achieve this goal we must understand how HUD’s programs can be strengthened to better support homeless youth while operating within the unfortunately tight fiscal constraints that we face.”
The definition of homelessness was raised several times during the hearing. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) spoke in favor of her bill, the “Homeless Children and Youth Act,” S. 256, which would expand HUD’s definition of homelessness to include an additional 3.5 million people who are now doubled-up with others for economic reasons or are paying to live in hotels or motels. “The present methodology, I believe, does not well represent the actual numbers. The figures for California, according to HUD, are 25,094 [homeless youth and children]. According to the Department of Education there are 259,656. That’s bigger than many populations of entire major areas,” Senator Feinstein said. However, her bill would not increase the authorization level for funding HUD’s homeless assistance programs, which some advocates worry would spread already insufficient resources even thinner.
Deborah Shore, chair of the National Network for Youth and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork in Washington, DC, testified that she supports changing the HUD definition, saying that the current definition prevents homeless youth from accessing services. “In order for youth to access a lot of the HUD services they need to be able to provide documentation or show that they are in fact defined as homeless according the definitions HUD has. To get that documentation is often really daunting. It becomes a problem of young people not having the kind of power relationship to be able to ask someone to give them a letter if they feel they are being abused,” she said.
Brittany Dixon, a formerly homeless youth, testified that she encountered difficulties in trying to get documentation proving she was homeless, saying, “I was told that I needed a letter to prove that the place I was staying I could no longer stay there. I couldn’t stay there any longer because the place I was staying had Section 8 housing and they were worried that if they signed the paperwork they’d be found out that they were keeping me even though they couldn’t have me there because of the rules. The person I needed to write the letter was very hesitant on it. Eventually I did get it signed though,” she said.
However, Senior Advisor for Housing and Services to the Secretary of HUD Jennifer Ho testified that the burden of documentation is on the provider and not the young person and that there was always an option to self-certify. Ms. Ho stated, “We would never ever ask a young person to go into a dangerous or precarious situation to give us paperwork so they can gain access to the services they need. There’s a huge amount of misinformation among well-intentioned providers and advocates and that’s a place where all of us working together could do more to get the right information out there to make sure that no young person feels like they can’t get a safe place to stay because there’s some screen.” She also mentioned that sometimes individual providers overlay stricter eligibility requirements that preclude certain youth from accessing services. Additionally, Ms. Ho acknowledged that while HUD’s estimate on the number of homeless youth is an undercount, HUD is working with other agencies to improve the methodology in collecting data on these individuals.
Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) made the point that the lack of federal resources forces the government to create rules that distinguish individuals who are eligible. He said, “If we literally don’t put our money where our mouths are and expand the supply [of housing units], this demand is going to go up. You have to be realistic. If you say [youth] become a priority, with limited resources, other people will lose out unless we can put in resources. Senator Collins and I are confronting this issue of sequestration where the resources could be constrained so severely that it gets even harder and to harder to respond.”
True Colors Fund co-founder Cyndi Lauper also testified to the fact that a disproportionate number of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Seven percent of the overall youth population is LGBT, but as many as 40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBT. “These kids come out and get thrown out – or they feel unsafe and run away. It’s unacceptable. No young person should be left without a home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They didn’t choose their identity and they are trying so hard to be brave – to survive,” Ms. Lauper said.
The hearing webcast and testimony are at http://www.appropriations.senate.gov/hearings-and-testimony/transportation-housing-urban-development-subcommittee-hearing-hud-efforts