Redefining homelessness


Stephen Wallace considers himself a

“hyper-curious” philosopher who’s an

advocate for peace. His days involve deciphering

theory at the Calvert Library

and his nights are spent in the home of

anyone who lets him in.

Wallace, 19, has been crashing with

various friends and acquaintances since

his parents kicked him out of their

house during his senior year of high

school. Now, as a couch-surfer, it appears

he may have officially joined the

ranks of the homeless as defined by the

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban

Development (HUD).

HUD’s old definition of homelessness

did not include insecurely-housed folks

such as Wallace. But the new definition,

part of the Obama Administration’s

Homeless Emergency and Rapid Transition

to Housing (HEARTH) Act, casts a

much wider net. The stated goal is to

enable HUD homeless programs to reach

beyond helping people who are living in

homeless, youth and domestic violence

shelters, parks, alleys or doorways, and

work to prevent homelessness among

those who may be on the very brink of


The new definition includes people

who lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate

nighttime residence,” according to HUD.

So, a person, or a family, can be homeless,

yet still be living in a home.

People who voluntarily share housing

for long periods would not be included

in the new definition. But many other

individuals and families have no choice.

Many federal agencies have long considered

children living in doubled-up

situations as homeless.

In testimony before Congress on

Dec. 15, HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary

Mark Johnson explained the importance

of federal agencies serving the

homeless to share a single definition.

He also emphasized the impact that

the new definition would have on his

department’s ability to help homeless

and insecurely housed families.

“I personally appreciate the need to

establish a common vocabulary across

agencies if we are going to end homelessness,”

he said. “I experienced this

firsthand when in 2009 and 2010 HUD

and the Departments of Health and

Human Services and Education worked

together to develop a demonstration

program to provide mainstream housing

services for families and children

who had no housing or who were on the

verge of losing their housing.”

Many homeless advocates see HUD’s

decision as a useful development.

The old definition captured only some

of the most vulnerable individuals and

families and overlooked many more in

desperate need of services, according

to a joint statement released by the

National Association for the Education

of Homeless Children and the National

Network for Youth.

“In order to protect their children

and to stay intact as a family, many

homeless families seek to avoid the

streets and obtain alternative arrangements.

These arrangements are overcrowded,

extremely unstable and often

unsafe. Youth on their own also are

more likely to couch surf due to lack of

shelters or other options. Families fleeing

domestic violence are also at great

risk in these arrangements,” the groups’

statement said.

Neil Donovan, executive director of

the National Coalition for the Homeless,


“It expands the definition to include

persons who are ‘doubled up,’ so that’s

a positive,” he said. “But in practical

terms, obtaining benefits as a homeless

person or family will still rest with

the individuals themselves.

“One of the challenges is that it requires

the individual to then confirm

their status as ‘doubled up’ by way of…

getting confirmation from an advocate

or some government entity.”

According to the National Coalition

for the Homeless’ report “How Many

People Experience Homelessness?,” the

number of victims has been rising, and

the cause are frequently attributed to

the recession and the housing crisis.

But homelessness is not a recent development,

and the reasons for it go

deeper than recent events.

“The root causes of homelessness are

a lack of affordable housing, systemic

deficiencies in the health care system,

and wages that have not kept pace with

the cost of living,” Donovan said.

To some, it might seem convenient to

blame homeless people themselves for

their predicament. But Donovan cautions

against it. “People who don’t understand

that those are the root causes

of homelessness assign the responsibility

for homelessness on the individual. We

call it ‘pathologizing homelessness.’”

And being treated as psychologically

abnormal or unhealthy becomes part of

the stigma of homelessness.

“So instead of saying, ‘this person is

homeless because they live in a city or

in a country that cannot address their

needs,’” said Donovan, “what they do is

they [people] say ‘this person is homeless

because of substance abuse or mental

illness or laziness or the fact that

they can’t keep a job.’ When in fact, if

that was the case, then there would be

many more homeless people.”

“In the case of homelessness, there’s

a real apathy toward homeless individuals,”

Donovan said. “There’s a real systemic


With the new definition of homelessness,

HUD is reaching past its comfort

zone. There will be challenges ahead

and more people to serve. HUD officials

hope they may also use the definition to

address homelessness while it’s still at

the couch-surfing stage.

Issues |Housing

Region |Washington DC

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