TAMPA, Fla. — Ask any homeless advocate about the current state of homelessness in America and you’ll likely hear how the epidemic is creeping into the middle class and may even be on its way to breaking records.
Skyrocketing home prices, inflation, and the after-shocks of a two-year-long pandemic are all being blamed for what some fear is a problem that “certainly hasn’t gotten better and is, potentially, getting worse,” explained Barbara Duffield of Schoolhouse Connection, a homeless advocacy group for children.
The growing concern surrounding homelessness may be more reason to question why thousands of homeless parents and their children are still unable to access certain federal dollars that would help them find more stable homes.
But according to U.S. Congressman Bill Posey, a Republican from Vero Beach, those restrictions are not likely to change anytime soon.
“I don’t see this moving. I really hope I’m wrong but I’ve been following this for five years and I haven’t seen any practical attention to this issue yet,” Posey said.
Congressman Posey is talking about a years-long controversy over how homelessness is defined.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, defines homelessness differently and more narrowly than other government agencies. In order to qualify for HUD funds, including ‘rapid rehousing,” a person must be living in a shelter or out on the streets among other scenarios.
The more restricted definition means people living in hotels, staying with a friend or relative, or couch-surfing aren’t considered “literally” homeless by HUD standards. Thus, they are not eligible for these HUD funds.
ABC Action News investigative reporter Katie LaGrone met Marketaia Ingram on the patio of Karma Nest, a Tampa hotel where she’s been living since October 1st. Ingram didn’t expect to be there so long.
“No, not at all. Maybe one or two months max,” she told us.
Ingram said she became homeless for the first time last year after falling victim to a housing scam when she made the move to Florida from North Carolina. But with housing prices exploding, the one-bedroom hotel room is all she can afford right now for herself and her three young children.
“Very stressful,” Ingram said of her situation. “You’re expected to be strong and still take care of your children."
But while Ingram and her kids may be considered homeless by school districts, county support groups, and the U.S. Department of Education, which makes services available through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act; they don’t qualify for HUD federal homeless dollars that could take them out of a hotel and into permanent housing because they are not “literally” homeless.
Since most students identified by school districts as homeless live in some kind of shared housing arrangement at the time they are identified, the controversy over how homelessness is defined impacts families most, advocates say.
“Not all roofs are the same,” said Congressman Posey. “There are safe roofs over your head. There are dangerous roofs over your head and there are potentially dangerous roofs over your head. But this one size fits all- oh, you have a roof over your head so you’re not eligible and you’re off the list,” said Posey shaking his head.
In 2017, Posey co-sponsored a federal bill that would redefine HUD’s definition of homelessness to better align with other federal agencies. The bill stalled.
This year, similar bi-partisan bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate. But Posey isn’t putting his money on change because, he said, HUD isn’t pushing it.
“It’s a monolithic agency that just doesn’t want to make any change in procedure bc it may be inconvenient,” Posey said.
In an email, a spokesperson from HUD stated:
The Biden-Harris Administration is taking steps to realize Secretary Fudge’s vision that everyone in America has a safe, stable place to call home. HUD is ensuring that people experiencing homelessness—including and especially families with children and youth—exit homelessness and enter permanent housing using a range of tailored housing and services. Over the last few years, HUD’s new homeless grant awards have prioritized programs that serve youth, survivors of gender-based violence, and families with children. HUD is also working to scale our rental assistance and affordable housing programs for families and households who experience all forms of housing insecurity, including being doubled-up or severely rent burdened. And HUD has also been working with other federal agencies to prevent households from housing loss due to eviction and foreclosure.
It is important to note that the Department of Education’s definition of homelessness has a different purpose than HUD’s. HUD and the Department of Education are members of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and work closely to examine our data and to coordinate our programs, including HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program.
Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, does not believe a definition change is going to solve the problem for families in need. Instead, Roman believes the key is more affordable housing.
“We’re 7 million units short in the country of affordable housing for the low-income households that need it. That’s what drives the homelessness problem and putting people into a shelter, if there’s a shelter for them to go into, is not going to solve that problem,” she said.
In addition, Roman believes more money and resources need to be poured into the housing voucher program, which helps families through Section 8 and other rental assistance programs.
“I don’t feel good saying we can’t help these families but that’s the reality. If they’re described as homeless, it’s not likely they’re going to get a subsidy,” she said. “It’s a game of musical chairs and not everyone gets a chair.”