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Homelessness crisis: Don’t exclude the invisible

I agree that “A stable and adequate place to call home is the cornerstone to a stable life,” as stated in the recent op-ed “Connecticut’s housing crisis requires more than an emergency response” (10/22/20). But my three decades of homelessness advocacy lead me to disagree with the authors’ premise that expanding the definition of homelessness is not the answer. Their recommendations exclude an estimated 80% of those experiencing homelessness.

Diane Nilan

Having spent the past 15 years on the road chronicling family homelessness across the country, including in my home state of Connecticut, I’ve observed homelessness far beyond my nights running busy shelters in Illinois. Since then I’ve researched, written about and witnessed various iterations of homelessness overlooked by media, policy makers, legislators, and the public. 

Undoubtedly, we need a substantial expansion of affordable housing — on all levels. As the Connecticut United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report indicates, middle income earners struggle to keep pace with the rising cost of living. But, we cannot stop there.

One major shortcoming of our nation’s abysmal housing policy continues to be a one-size-fits-all approach aimed at “chronic” homelessness. The feds continue to ignore families and youth. 

If you look at the numbers of people who have lost housing —with nowhere to go (an indisputable characteristic of homelessness) —you find that literally millions of families, youth and individuals without homes are ignored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD. HUD reports to Congress around 500,000 are homeless. The true number likely exceeds 10 million.

We oversimplify the issue of affordable housing to the detriment of those most vulnerable. Affordable is relative. The flimsier your income level and the more debilitating conditions you deal with (e.g., physical/mental health problems), the more at risk of homelessness you are, before the pandemic.

We miss multiple issues impacting housing vulnerability. We accept the oversimplified “mental illness/addictions” stigmas. Many people struggle with mental illness and addictions; not all homeless. I created the chart above to illustrate several common, unrecognized factors causing/contributing to homelessness. 

Our homeless response system is under-resourced. But why? Congress will not increase resources for this unpopular and politically impotent issue without knowing how significant the problem is. Because HUD ignores the millions doubled up, in motels on their own dime, or in the plethora of other alternative shelter arrangements, Congress remains blissfully ignorant. 

The fact is, the hypothetical emergency room won’t be built without a needs’ assessment. And we need more than “emergency rooms” to return our communities to good health. Congress won’t authorize the billions required to restore housing and human services to a healthy level until they know how significant the problem is. 

What is the alternative for those desperate for housing assistance standing outside the hypothetical “emergency room?” Why do we need to choose whom to save?  It’s unconscionable to exclude millions of homeless families and individuals because they don’t qualify under HUD’s eye-of-the-needle definition. Our nation’s spending priorities need reestablishing. 

Who would be excluded under HUD’s definition? Connecticut public schools identified 5,015 students experiencing homelessness in the 2017-18 school year. Roughly 3,750 of those students are doubled up, a category excluded by HUD; another 750 are in motels/hotels, most presumably with parents/guardians and siblings. These examples illustrate a conservative estimate of Connecticut’s “outside the emergency room” population, numbers that represent actual students, not including parents and younger/older siblings not in school.

The coronavirus has flushed out many unstably housed  —doubled up, in motels, campgrounds, vehicles, etc.— as their flimsy arrangements fell apart in the pandemic upheaval. Appallingly, they looked in vain for help in their communities —shelters shut off intakes, while assistance agencies closed and then restricted operations because of limited funds and staff. Many have gone underground, and school-age kids miss the one path to escape poverty—education.

To be sure, we need a robust multi-level approach to developing and maintaining housing stability for everyone. We must include supportive services—including physical/mental health care— and systemic fixes requiring federal resources as well as state and local funding.

I return to my premise: how will we convince Congress of the need if they don’t know how widespread the need is?

Yes, we desperately need Congress to pass the HEROES Act. And we need to agree that excluding millions from housing assistance does no one any good.

Diane Nilan, born in Stamford, is the author of Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness; co-author of Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness; and is soon releasing her latest, a memoir/social narrative, Dismazed and Driven – My Look at Family HomelessnessAdditionally, she has filmed dozens of short videos featuring families and youth experiencing homelessness.

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