Couch, car or curb: Defining which young person is ‘homeless’ affects aid state by state

A patchwork of definitions complicates efforts to help youth without permanent homes.

By: - August 17, 2023 5:00 am
A playground outside a boarded-up building.

Boarded-up doors and windows are seen on homes adjacent to a Baltimore playground in February. Youth homelessness often takes hidden forms: couch-surfing teens and children whose families have been forced to double up with relatives or stay in motels. Julio Cortez/The Associated Press

The spectrum of youth homelessness is vast.

It includes young children sleeping with their mothers in crowded shelters and families living in tent encampments in public parks. There are teenage runaways who have fled abusive homes to live on the streets and kids who spend their nights hidden in cars or abandoned buildings.

But youth homelessness also takes less recognizable forms: couch-surfing teens and children whose families have been forced to double up with relatives or friends, and who might go undetected by authorities. And even if authorities do know about them, they might not consider them to be homeless.

There is no single, uniform definition of homelessness across states or even within the federal government. That greatly complicates efforts to help the young people experiencing it, especially when cities, states and nonprofits are using federal dollars to do so. Several states this year tried to clarify the situation and to provide more aid to homeless youth — especially to teenagers fending for themselves.

They include new laws in Arkansas, Kentucky, Nevada and North Dakota designed to make it easier for homeless youth to procure vital documents such as state IDs, birth certificates and driver’s licenses.

A new Oklahoma law calls on every school district to use a common form to determine how many students are homeless and to report the results to state officials. And Washington state nearly doubled funding for a grant program that helps school districts and housing authorities identify and help homeless youth.

Meanwhile, legislators in other states — including California, Michigan and Pennsylvania — still are considering bills that would provide various forms of support to homeless youth.

Dueling definitions

People are homeless if they lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” or reside “in an emergency shelter or a place not meant for human habitation, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The agency’s definition also includes people who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence and those fleeing domestic violence.

But the U.S. Department of Education’s more expansive definition also includes people who are doubling up or are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds because they can’t afford other accommodations.

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Housing advocates say HUD’s definition doesn’t capture the fluidity of homelessness.

“When we limit our definitions of homelessness to just the HUD definition or even the [Department of Education] definition, we miss out on the full scope of what young people experience when it comes to homelessness,” said Kim Justice, executive director of Washington state’s Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection.

The dueling definitions also lead to wide-ranging estimates of how many young people are experiencing homelessness — making it practically impossible to know the numbers for certain.

For example, HUD estimated that on a single night in 2022, there were 50,767 families with children experiencing homelessness. There were another 30,090 unaccompanied homeless youth in the United States, with an additional 6,348 youth experiencing homelessness as
parents.

But statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education suggest that there were about 115,000 unaccompanied youth just among the nearly 1.3 million public school students who experienced homelessness in 2019-20.

Dawn Bogart, co-chief executive director of Homeless Youth Connection, a nonprofit based in Phoenix, said the HUD numbers vastly understate the scope of the problem in Arizona.

According to HUD, the number of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness in Arizona has increased by 45% since 2020, from 633 to 917. But in collecting numbers for federal education officials, the Arizona Department of Education estimated that there were nearly 14,000 homeless public school students in 2020-21.

Most of them, Bogart said, are doubling up in other people’s homes, not living in shelters or on the street.

“And [students experiencing homelessness] may think that couch-surfing is OK because you technically still have a roof over your head,” Bogart said. “But these kids are in between three and five places, and that’s hardly a stable or sustainable home environment.”

Even school officials’ counts, conducted using the broader definition, might be much too low. An analysis of district-level data conducted last year by the Center for Public Integrity estimated that nearly 300,000 homeless students were not included. Some 2,400 school districts reported having zero homeless students — highly unlikely given the poverty rates in some of them.

You can serve a youth that's sleeping on the street, but you can't serve a youth who's sleeping on someone's couch.

– Amy Dworsky, senior research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago

The most significant effect of the dueling definitions, advocates say, is that many young people they consider to be homeless aren’t eligible for help.

Federal law prohibits schools from spending any of that money on housing these students.

And most youth experiencing homelessness by being doubled up or living in motels find themselves ineligible for HUD’s Rapid Re-Housing program — a major pathway to stability, advocates told Stateline.

“If you’re running a program and you’re funded by HUD, based on their definition of homelessness, your hands are tied in terms of who you can serve,” said Amy Dworsky, a senior research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. “You can serve a youth that’s sleeping on the street, but you can’t serve a youth who’s sleeping on someone’s couch.”

A common meaning

To address some of the problems created by the different meanings, South Carolina this year enacted a law that creates a common — and expansive — definition of “youth homelessness” across all state agencies.

The new definition includes anyone younger than 25 “who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” It specifically includes those “who are sharing the housing of other persons” because of economic hardship and those who have been forced to live in motels, hotels and camping grounds.

Notably, the new law also sets 24 as the maximum age for an unaccompanied homeless youth.

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South Carolina’s new definition brings greater visibility to young adults who are unhoused, a cohort that can go unseen, said Rodd Monts, director of state policy for SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit focusing on education-based youth homelessness policies.

“The significance of this is that it captures all those young people, up to age 24, who may be doubled up or otherwise find a way to have a roof over their head temporarily,” he said. “But they are still homeless.”

But a similar effort failed in Texas, where bill sponsors wanted the state’s description of “homelessness” to match the federal Department of Education definition: families and unaccompanied youth who are couch-surfing, doubling up, migratory or living in places such as cars, transit stations and motels.

The bill passed the Texas Senate unanimously, but didn’t make it out of a House committee this spring.

A legislative analysis found that some observers think the state does not have funds to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness, but the analysis’s fiscal note asserted that the state could use current resources even under the expanded definition.

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