Understanding poverty and homelessness in America

How needy families get excluded from assistance programs.

The 2006 Street Count - an annual census of homeless people in the United States - has resulted in accolades and high- fives for the Bush administration's Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH). Rates have dropped in major metropolitan areas such as Miami and Dallas by as much as 30 percent. Some places, such as Denver, report more modest decreases. Overall though, the climate at the national summit held in Denver recently for those involved in developing 10-year plans to end homelessness was pretty ecstatic.

But for the tens of millions of people who live in rural America, and for families everywhere with children, the news is pretty bad - they just simply didn't get counted.

The problem is, there are so many definitions of homelessness for so many different programs, no one is quite sure anymore exactly what "homeless" means. Families with children who cannot access shelters simply can't consider the streets an option. So they are often found doubled - and tripled-up with friends and relatives, and frequently move between multiple locations. While they may be considered homeless by the local school district, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doesn't think so. These people might be able to access healthcare services if there is a homeless clinic in the neighborhood, but they won't be able to get food stamps as an individual or a family. And they will probably put the family that was willing to take them in at risk of losing their housing. None of these folks got counted in the 2006 Street Count.

According to the United States Conference of Mayors, requests for shelter by families with children went unmet 32 percent of the time in 2004 - and families with children make up the fastest-growing segment among the homeless. Fifty-six percent of the reporting cities say that homeless families have to break up in order to find shelter. At least 3.5 million persons are likely to experience homelessness during a year in the United States and 40 percent of them will be children. None of these children got counted this year, either.

Families without stable housing face transportation barriers that make job retention and children's school continuity difficult. But because we can't get HUD to agree with the Department of Education or with the Department of Health and Human Services on a single definition of homelessness, these families are often stuck in a downward spiral, unable even to begin the process of trying to be self-sufficient.

There is no town, city, or state anywhere in America where an individual or family working full-time and earning the minimum wage can afford a one- or two- bedroom apartment at the fair market rental rate established by HUD. Just this week, the National Association of Realtors put the median price for a modest home in the US at more than $200,000.

The US Conference of Mayors has requested by resolution that the ICH and the president call for all federal departments and funding sources to adopt a common definition of homelessness. Perhaps they should listen more to the mayors who are actually seeing what goes on in their cities and towns every day, instead of depending on numbers gathered by four hours of schlepping through the streets of our biggest cities one night a year.

This kind of effort and cooperation would go a long way in helping all communities provide a consistent level of help and support for children and their parents. It might even give us a valid count. But instead, ICH met in Denver to celebrate numbers that don't seem to have much real meaning to people across America struggling to find shelter and keep their families intact.

Affordable housing, access to healthcare, and meaningful work for decent wages will solve the problem of homelessness in America. We just have to believe that everybody counts.

Gerry Roll is executive director of Hazard Perry County Community Ministries in Hazard, Ky.

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