|NATIONAL | fall 2006
Victims of violence and their families are low priority in federal homeless policy
Laura Stewart (not her real name), a survivor of
domestic violence, is currently
staying at a homeless shelter in
Wichita, Kan. She’d love to obtain
long-term government housing support,
especially since her seriously
disabled daughter requires 24-hour
nursing care. But Laura isn’t high on
the priority list for such support.
Current U.S. policy, under a Department of Housing and Urban
Development (HUD) homeless initiative
put in place by the Bush
administration, focuses its attention
on "chronically homeless" individuals,
while underfunding programs for homeless families and women who
have suffered domestic violence (about two-thirds of all homeless women).
In 2001, the Bush administration
set a goal of “ending chronic homelessness
in 10 years.” The chronically homeless were defined as “unaccompanied
homeless individuals with a disabling condition who have either
been continuously homeless for a
year or more, or have had at least four
episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” By definition, families—and those who are more “temporarily”
homeless, such as victims of
domestic violence—don’t qualify.
The idea behind the Bush plan is that
by somehow solving in 10 years the
problem of the chronically homeless—
who form a more visible presence
on the streets—resources can
then be released to serve other homeless populations. But the trickle-down
concept hasn’t worked. There is no evidence that any savings have been
passed on to other homeless populations,
nor is there a plan to do so.
Many communities have witnessed significant growth in the scale and
severity of homelessness among
those who do not fit the “chronically
homeless” paradigm, such as families
fleeing domestic violence or unaccompanied
youth. But with the annual
federal housing budget at a
virtual standstill, funding that may
have once gone to domestic violence
shelters, social services for children
or job training programs is now being
siphoned off to serve the narrowfocus of the initiative.
To make matters worse, the HUD
definition of homelessness fails to include
the types of living situations that
are most prevalent for homeless families.
With the danger of the streets and
a shortage of shelters—or no shelters
at all—many homeless families must
stay temporarily in motels or with other
people. Those living situations are often overcrowded, unwelcoming,
dangerous and all-too-common. The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2005
Survey on Hunger and Homelessness revealed that 32 percent of all families
seeking emergency shelter had to be turned away for lack of space.
The president’s “homeless czar,”
Philip Mangano, has lobbied against
expanding federal homeless assistance
to these families, arguing that it would
interfere with the administration’s 10-year plan. Two current federal legislative
proposals, S. 1801 and H.R. 5041,
would put into law much of that policy.
Could it be that the real goal of the
initiative, and this legislation, is to
clear the streets of the visibly homeless
and redefine the rest of the homeless
population out of existence?
As we recognize National Domestic
Violence Awareness Month in
October, we can’t forget how often it
links to homelessness. One of the
ways the federal government could
offer better shelter to victims of violence
is to discard the “chronic” initiative.
Then, it could support real efforts to prevent and end homelessness
for all who suffer it.
Brad Paul is executive director of the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness.