Stop and Think about the Homeless Children and Youth Act (even if you do not work with this population)

This is a special blog to discuss Homeless Children and Youth Act, S.256 in the United States given the urgency of beginning our discussions surrounding it. The regular blog returns on Monday.


Whether you work with unaccompanied youth, families, or single adults experiencing homelessness, I want you to stop and think about the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act, S.256 and its implications. Frankly it is one of those pieces of legislation that sound awesome until you pull back the curtain. It is not mom and apple pie. There are implications to this that we need to dissect and consider from a funding, operational, and policy perspective. It is possible to think critically about the bill and still be supportive of ending homelessness amongst youth, as well as ending homelessness for children and their families. And yes, there are implications to communities and service providers that customarily do not work with youth or families. S.256 impacts all people experiencing homelessness, funders, service providers, and Continua of Care.

Here are the highlights of S.256:

  • The definition of homelessness expands so that all poor families living with others on a longer-term basis for economic reasons are included. What this means is that many, many more millions of additional families and youth become eligible for HUD homeless assistance.
  • Communities would be required to do counts of the number of families and youth doubled up for economic reasons.
  • Strategic use of HUD resources would revert back to a time where services were not guided by evidence because of who it demands be served and how.


Some of that you may agree with and some you may not. Consider that:

  • There are NO new resources attached to the bill and the nation is already short a couple hundred million to effectively serve existing unsheltered families and unaccompanied children and youth.
  • The bill is likely to be attached to other legislation meaning the route of usual discussion and debate in the political process is not there.


But that is not all that I am worried about.

I think the people at HUD have done an amazing job in recent years establishing a national agenda about population groups to serve and prioritize. In effect their policy and funding has moved us away from creaming and helped us get to the nuts and bolts of people that need services the most, not just those that want services the most. It has had the impact of getting service providers to elevate their game and learn how to best serve individuals and families with complex, co-occurring life circumstances, while remaining focused on housing. Data and evidence have become critical to communities learning how to best house and support people.

I fear that, if passed, communities will start to revert to a time where resources are aligned to families with lower and moderate issues prior to being used for those families and individuals (including unaccompanied youth) that have the highest needs and issues. I liken it to an emergency department of a hospital choosing to use its resources to help set the broken leg of the 8 year old that fell off her bike before helping the 57 year old that had a heart attack because children are the future, and the 57 year old is an overweight smoker who has had three previous heart attacks.

I have seen, in recent years, considerable improvement in how data is used to help understand homelessness in a given community and then reorient funding to address the deepest needs. S.256 moves us more towards an emotional response to the issue more than a data driven one, in my opinion. But data requirements that come with it, like understanding the number of households that are living in doubled-up situations on a longer-term basis for economic reasons, are labor intensive to even try to address and dang near impossible to do accurately. If you thought there may be some flaws with your Point in Time numbers, you ain’t seen nothing.

I also think the Act confuses poverty and homelessness. Are the two related? Yes. Are they the same thing? No. About 49 million Americans live in poverty, while at any given time about 600,000 experience homelessness (using HUD’s existing definition; unsheltered or staying in homeless programs). Those numbers are not even close to being the same. Almost all of the former number is housed, while all of the latter number is homeless. What will happen is homeless resources will be diverted to address households that are precariously housed, but housed nonetheless.

In the past few years a ton of work has gone into getting communities to work as systems. I fear S.256 gets us more back to silos and less into systems-thinking. Instead of looking at the entire homeless population comprehensively and organizing services by acuity, this legislation takes us back to what I have often referred to as “pet population” approach where decisions are not driven by data, but are inherently driven by feelings of a deserving and undeserving poor.


Would more resources help communities better meet the needs of unaccompanied youth and children in families experiencing homelessness? Yes. But let us be pragmatic and realistic and start with households that are unsheltered and languishing within shelter.

Are there many households living in poverty? Yes. But let us rethink income supports and government benefits, access to employment, and food security. It would be terribly unfortunate to use homeless resources to combat these structural issues. S.256 is misguided in wanting to address these fundamental problems through homeless resources, and without additional funding. I also feel it will let elected officials off the hook by not engaging them in the structural issues and not having to provide additional funding (which is one of the greatest measures of priority for a person in office – where they put your tax dollars).

Should we improve services to youth and families experiencing homelessness? Yes. I will submit that some communities have put the needs of chronically homeless single adults above the needs of all others and that is a problem. I argue that we need to look at the depth of needs of all people experiencing homelessness regardless of whether they are a single adult, family or unaccompanied youth and allocate resources accordingly rather than considering sub-populations in isolation.

I urge you to pause and think of the broader implications if this becomes law. We need a more thoughtful, involved process rather than tagging this onto an unrelated appropriations bill. Now is the time to contact your elected officials with urgency and purpose to let them know you support ending homelessness and this Act, while it sounds good, actually does more harm than good.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

7 Responses to “Stop and Think about the Homeless Children and Youth Act (even if you do not work with this population)”

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  1. Amen! Thanks for posting this because these are my concerns with this legislation too. It very clearly is asking us to put people, who are very vulnerable, but do at least have a roof over their heads in line ahead of people who are literally sleeping in their cars. It’s crazy. So practical advice for people who want to contact their legislators. If you legislator is a democrat just link directly to this blog post. The truly liberal should get it. If your legislator is Republican, point out that our current system is designed around spending public money in the most efficient and effective way possible and that any change is going to make it less efficient. If your legislator is a Texas Republican (like mine are), you may need to hold your nose for this. They aren’t going to listen unless it’s a tea-party-approved ideology, so tell them that this bill will waste money on people who are already housed. I know it’s distasteful, but you know they aren’t going to be swayed by rational, reasonable, logical, or compassionate arguments. Sometimes you have to fight crazy with crazy.

  2. Jake says:

    Iain – aren’t you in effect saying that the new people considered homeless in this bill (those doubled up) aren’t themselves deserving of services? Rather than combating the concept of the undeserving poor it seems that you are playing right into it. I get the worry about funding but isn’t it time that we accepted that poverty and homeless ARE interrelated, interdependent, and incredibly tricky to separate? Additionally isn’t it also time that we realize that homelessness is much more complicated than being or not being in shelter? I have served many clients who have gone to shelter but only because they knew they could receive services – they told me that they had a place to stay doubled up but that they KNEW that shelter was where they went to get services. Think about the number of people that want services but for whatever reason (stigma of shelter, not wanting to pay all of their money to the county, etc) they don’t go to shelter to access those services?

    I think sometimes people (including myself) in the homelessness field get so zero-ed in on ending what legislators ect. have defined as “homelessness” that we forget that our current definition of homelessness is rooted in history and politics (and a pretty conservative and discriminatory history and politics at that!…for more info I highly recommend Tessa Gowan’s fantastic ethnography of homeless in San Francisco Hobos, Hustlers, Backsliders).

    Additionally your view of “data driven” seems pretty short sighted in my opinion. You’re worried that we are going back to an era where we use “emotions” instead of “data” to find solutions. However I don’t see how we can’t define new metrics, data collection methods to better serve this new population. Additionally lets not forget that how we use data is completely dependant on ideologies, values, etc. that are already in place. Let’s not pretend that data is “impartial” – we develop data, metrics, etc. based on our preconceived notions. If anything I would argue that our current metric of measuring homelessness itself is a fantasy. By NOT including those who are doubled up we are already severly skewing the data for measuring homelessness.

    I get why you posted this – you don’t want funding to be taken away from those who already don’t have enough. However, isn’t it time to admit that our current solutions to homelessness aren’t working? I worry that our obsession with “ending homelessness” in the current context (aka everyone who goes to shelter or is unsheltered doesn’t get services) is keeping our focus off of bigger issues (inequality, capitalism, etc.) I worry that our need to prove that our services are working by zero-ing in on incredibly specific subsets of those that are homeless is distracting from the fact that there are still millions whose needs aren’t being met. I think what I worry most of all about is that no one in the homelessness world is really interested in ENDING HOMELESSNESS.

    I also want to apologize if this feels at all personal because it isn’t. I think you’ve done amazing things in the field and I’ve learned so much from you. I’m just worried that the homelessness world is simply doing what is “good enough” vs. doing what’s actually right.

  3. JD Miner says:

    Re: aren’t you in effect saying that the new people considered homeless in this bill (those doubled up) aren’t themselves deserving of services?
    The answer is no. He is not saying they are undeserving of services. He is saying correctly that they are in less urgent need of services than people in shelter or on the street.

  4. Jon says:

    There are nuances being overlooked in the term “homeless,” I imagine. I think what is being said is not about deserving or undeserving, it’s about needs being met. If HUD has been giving one glass of water a day each to 3 people in the desert, this bill is the equivalent of legislator saying that the same 3 glasses of water per day must (potentially) be spread among 24.5 people a day. Keeping with the illustration, I think Iain is alluding to the fact that the three person’s in the desert are going to be pretty shabby looking and weak, and will get trampled and ignored (again) in the rush of the other 21.5 for the water when they already have a meager supply they are sharing.

    Now that I read this over, I’m not sure I have cleared anything up, but it was fun to write, so here it is.

  5. Rose Phillips says:

    I agree this would’ve been a counterproductive bill. And I hear what you’re saying about targeting those with highest acuity–it’s perfectly logical to target our intervention dollars to those who are most vulnerable. But if you take this idea to its logical conclusion, are you saying that it’s unconscionable for communities to spend *any* HUD homeless assistance dollars on homeless or at-risk people with low to moderate acuity–people who would become homeless or remain homeless for over 30 days “but for” the assistance, but aren’t extremely bad off? Are you saying that these lower-acuity households should *only* be served by whatever CoC or ESG funds are left over once all the highest-acuity people are off the street?

    And yet, communities across the nation have homelesness prevention and rapid re-housing programs that do target these low-to-moderate acuity people. Is it an emotional, unjustifiable response, one that has the effect of throwing lower-acuity households into a lottery with low odds and cruelly getting their hopes up? Is it about preventing them from developing higher acuity later on? Or, perhaps, is it about developing and maintaining institutional knowledge and capacity to help all types of homeless populations? If we abruptly stopped funding rapid re-housing for moderate-barrier families, for instance, we’d lose many talented people who are already working on it, and we’d have to start from scratch when there was funding and support for these programs again. Perhaps another reason to spread funding across acuity groups–even if most of it is targeted to the most vulnerable–is to provide a critical, predictable strand of funding that can be used to leverage additional funds.

    While I don’t think we should divide a fixed pot of money among a growing population, I suspect that a significant minority of precariously housed kids have acuity levels that are comparable to or higher than those of their literally homeless counterparts. Perhaps school district liaisons can help these kids and families provide documentation to qualify for ESG assistance if they are eligible, and could screen kids for emotional problems, family strife, and other stressors. Perhaps communities could develop local escrow accounts to help these households save up for security deposits–similar to the Section 8 Family Self-Sufficiency program, but with lower barriers to entry. One study in Central Florida found that car ownership was a key difference between families of school-aged kids who remained homeless (per the ED definition) and those who found housing; maybe local United Ways and Community Foundations could expand programs to help precariously housed families buy cars. Maybe a lot of excellent work is already happening for precariously housed kids, but not everyone in a local CoC is aware of it.

    You can brainstorm a lot of ideas and seek out a lot of good information if you care enough to ask about these precariously housed kids and their families. Rather than waving away these concerns with a flippant “It’s not the job of the homeless response system to end poverty”, you could engage these concerns and come up with ideas that don’t involve plundering HUD’s limited McKinney-Vento funds. Of course, the NAEHCY and the NAEH camps are equally to blame–the former should be more pragmatic and resourceful, and the latter should be more sensitive and less compartmentalized in their thinking.

  6. Rose Phillips says:

    I also wonder if the value of prevention–or rapidly ending homelessness–for lower-acuity households is underestimated. When you get a very ill, chronically homeless person off the street, you avert a tremendous amount of human suffering and taxpayer expenditures … for a few years, until the person’s shortened life ends. Housing these men and women is absolutely the decent, humane, morally incumbent thing to do … but if you help a twentysomething single mom and her young kids, you may be averting a comparable or larger amount of human suffering (if you could possibly quantify such a thing) and taxpayer expense. Multiply the years of their much longer lifespans by the increasing acuity that they might experience each year that they languish without assistance.

    Or their acuity might not increase–it’s hard to predict. But the limitations of quantifying acuity, suffering, and public cost provide some justification for helping lower-acuity homeless households with HUD funds.

  7. Mark Heinert says:

    I am a program manager for a RHY (Runaway and Homeless Youth) program. I also am an active member of our Continuum of Care and the Coordinated Assessment process. I have mixed feelings on this issue and wanted to shed some light on a few things.

    1. RHY youth are viewed as homeless by some federal and state programs while “couch surfing”, but other state and federal programs do not deem them homeless. When most funding sources stress the importance of mixing funding and not being too reliant on federal grants, this poses great challenges. It is very difficult to identify the most in need when some are eligible for this revenue stream, but others are not. Separating out an individuals needs, as Ian knows, is far more complex than whether they were sheltered last night or not. I have done the VI-SPDAT tool on both unsheltered and sheltered youth. I would anecdotally share that individuals that are victims of human trafficking are rarely in emergency shelters, often staying with what they would call friends, and would usually score as a higher vulnerability (for good reason). These people are not considered homeless when looking at the strict (HUD) definition of homeless. Many victims will not disclose the prostitution due to shame and so they are less likely to present as homeless.

    2. On the other hand, all of us hate unfunded mandates. The lack of money in this legislation is certainly problematic. We should see greater increases in funding that will focus on the unique needs of youth. The federal funds associated with the Runaway and Homeless Youth act do not come close to addressing the needs of this population. By allowing youth to meet the definition of homelessness with HUD, it will not provide specific dollars for this population. Instead, they are lumped in with all others that are homeless.

    3. As a result of points 1 and 2, I find myself advocating for youth to be included in the definition. My primary reason is that we need to do assessments that look at the whole picture to determine who really is at the greatest need. Because youth are less likely to be in a shelter or even on the street, many have automatically been excluded from HUD funded services and programs. (However, I would prefer that the legislation provide more funds for RHY specifically instead of watering down the definition.) In addition to trafficked youth, many others are very vulnerable and stay in locations that are potentially more dangerous than an emergency shelter or even the street. This issue should not prevent them from receiving the support services or housing that they need.

    4. If we do not support this legislation, youth I work with on a daily basis will find themselves less likely to receive mainstream housing supports, which will further alienate them from the rest of society. I appreciate Ian’s interest in the topic and agree with him that it is important to look at this issue deeper. Homelessness is homelessness and vulnerability is vulnerability. Why would we exclude a population from the opportunity to have their vulnerabilities looked at to receive mainstream resources? Should we really consider a youth engaging in survival sex less vulnerable from his/her homeless peers because he/she wasn’t at a shelter or on the street last night?