False promises: More homeless aid eligibility requires more funds

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A well-intended bill that would expand the federal definition of homelessness would, without more money, make it even harder for some of the most vulnerable Americans to get the help they need.

Under the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act, introduced last month, an estimated 900,000 young adults and families with children would become eligible for federal assistance. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, are sponsoring the bill.

But the bipartisan legislation provides no new money for homeless programs run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees such federal spending. Even now, HUD-funded homeless programs assist only a fraction of the people eligible for them.

HUD-funded homeless programs reach only about one in five of those who are eligible. The bill would expand the number of potential applicants for already oversubscribed programs by 10 times or more.

In a 2012 survey, HUD counted 247,178 households that included at least one child as homeless, while data from the Department of Education show that 1.1 million children nationwide are homeless.

HUD’s current definition of homelessness includes people who live on the street, in shelters, in cars and under bridges. 

The Homeless Children and Youth Act would align HUD’s definition of child and family homelessness with the Department of Education’s, which also includes poorly housed families who live doubled up with other households or in motels.

Children and families who live in such dangerous and deplorable conditions need assistance. With current funding, however, they would get little or no aid from HUD programs, and any help they received would come at the expense of families who are on the street. At least HUD’s current definition of homelessness targets scarce resources on those who need them most.

With HUD homeless programs already underfunded and overwhelmed, the politicians who propose this change should have the courage and foresight to push for more funding as well. Without it, the Homeless Children and Youth Act would do more harm than good.

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