Bill re-introduced to expand definition of homelessness and be more inclusive to youth

A homeless tent city on Van Buren Street in November 2013. The legal definition of homelessness may change to be more encompassing to children for aid. (Alexis Macklin/DD)
A homeless tent city on Van Buren Street in November 2013. The legal definition of homelessness may change to be more encompassing to youth through a bill recently re-introduced to Congress. (Alexis Macklin/DD)

The Homeless Children and Youth Act, a bill that would make the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) current definition of homelessness more inclusive toward America’s homeless youth population, has recently been re-introduced to Congress.

The bill would make it easier for youth already considered homeless by other federal agencies to qualify for federal housing.

“Currently, the definition of homeless that our young people are required to meet … is that they have to be literally homeless,” said Anne Gray, housing and program coordinator at One N Ten, a Phoenix nonprofit that provides assistance for homeless youth, with a focus on LGBTQ youth.

“Homelessness often is couch surfing,” she said.

The current definition of homelessness used by HUD requires families and unaccompanied youth to prove they moved twice in 60 days, and that they did not have permanent housing for those 60 days, among other conditions that often make it difficult for youth to secure permanent housing.

The new bill would allow young adults and children temporarily sharing housing or living in a hotel room — due to loss of housing or economic hardship — to qualify for assistance.

The bill was proposed in a session of Congress last year, but was not enacted.

According to the Homelessness in Arizona 2014 Annual Report, approximately 4,300 adults and children, living in families, were counted in homeless shelters and on the streets during the 2014 Annual Point in Time count — a survey conducted on a single night in January of last year. The report also states that 31,097 children were reported throughout the state as homeless during 2013 by the Arizona Department of Education’s Homeless Education Office.

The survey found 213 youth living on the streets and 504 living in emergency shelters or transitional housing.

The numbers recorded by the Point in Time count could be misleading, said Jon Linton, a Phoenix-based artist and homelessness activist.

“For every person they count, they may miss two people,” Linton said. “Many folks that are homeless, they don’t want to be found. Because to be found, that means that you … are very vulnerable.”

Youth in particular will go to great lengths to avoid being recognized as homeless, Linton said. Linton said a woman from a homeless outreach service approached him asking if a homeless young man she was working with could sell his art at an event. Linton said he agreed, and the boy ended up selling $130 of his work, “and was in tears when he left — he said it was the best day he could remember in a long, long while.”

It was lucky for the young man that the woman from the outreach service was able to get in contact with him again, Linton said. He said homeless young adults often hang around ASU because they can easily blend in among the college-age students.

“I don’t often come across kids that I could recognize as homeless on the street, because they go very much out of their way to look like … the kid next door, essentially,” Linton said.

President Barack Obama’s Opening Doors plan, which addresses the issue of homelessness in the United States, hopes to end veterans’ and chronic homelessness by 2015 and homelessness among children, families and youth by 2020.

“(Homeless youth) are kind of like the lost population,” said Laura Dragon, a homelessness activist and owner and curator of Phoenix’s {9} the Gallery.

Dragon added that homeless youth are often at a particular disadvantage because they lack the emotional support that comes with having a secure home and family life as they enter adulthood.

“To have a family system that’s not supporting you to the place where you have the security of a roof over your head, and food in your stomach and clothes on your back, you’re already at a place of a real emotional break,” Dragon said. “And there should be no child that goes without those things in this country. None.”

Katherine Kouvelas, an education tutor at Tumbleweed Tempe Youth Resource Center on University Drive and Wilson Street, said she felt the homeless youth population was at an educational disadvantage — even if they had received traditional schooling.

“They weren’t raised the way you would consider a normal childhood should be,” Kouvelas said. “They didn’t learn about money. And they didn’t learn about grooming. And they didn’t learn how to interview.”

Without a cell phone, identification or address, getting a job is almost impossible for homeless young adults, even those with interview skills, Kouvelas added.

“Even if they wanted a job, they couldn’t get one,” she said.

The Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development has locations in both Phoenix and Tempe. The drop-in center in Phoenix is located near McDowell Road and 16th Street. It offers services for youth ages 12 to 25, including emergency shelter, transitional living, and education and employment assistance.

One N Ten is another organization, based in Phoenix near Windsor Avenue and Third Street, that provides services to homeless and at-risk youth in Maricopa County, with a focus on LGBTQ young adults.

The LGBTQ population is disproportionately affected by homelessness. LGBTQ youth make up 20 to 40 percent of the homeless youth population, while only 5 to 10 percent of all youth are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, according to the Center for American Progress.

One N Ten has a program that can offer up to two years of housing, but the group lacks the funding necessary to provide a home for all those who need one, Gray said.

“The challenge is just the numbers of homeless youth who need housing,” Gray said. “We’re really the difference for a lot of kids … sometimes between life and death.”

Kouvelas said a variety of aid options could help homeless youth.

“I think there’s so many different avenues that the government could help, like offering programs for assistance,” Kouvelas said. “We’re just one avenue … we try to help, but it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole. It’s an uphill battle from the start.”

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