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Cover Story: Homeless by any definition

Sat, Jul 7, 2012

Youth testify near 25th anniversary of federal funding

Brandon Dunlap was intermittently homeless throughout his youth and at one time slept on the floor under a pool table in his cousin’s home.

“There really wasn’t room for me to stay there,” Dunlap, 25, told a congressional subcommittee last December 15. “I was uncomfortable and did not sleep well. That had its effects the next day when I would be tired and find it hard to focus at school.”

Starnica Rodgers, 18, had also been homeless off and on for much of her life. “My Mom is a single mother with four kids and has worked minimum wage jobs her whole life,” she told the same congressional subcommittee. “I remember watching my mother struggle to pay rent and us having to go to a shelter when I was 5. I want my life to be better.”

Rodgers and her mother started getting into fights as she grew older, when she said her mother became both verbally and physically abusive. “By the time I was 16, I knew I had to leave for my own safety. So there I was: 16 and homeless.”

Dunlap and Rodgers both testified before the House Committee on Financial Services Subcommittee for Insurance, Housing, and Community Opportunity regarding H.R. 32, the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2011. Dunlap, a graduate of Kendall College, was supported in his testimony by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Rodgers had the backing of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness; she is now a student at Truman College, a member of its Drama Team and Student Senate and living with her young son in a subsidized apartment in Rogers Park.

The two Chicagoans were among six youth – including a 6th grader from Pennsylvania whose mother fled domestic violence, a 7th grader from New York, a 9th grader from Florida and a private first class in the Army – whose testimony was heard on the NBC Nightly News.

Sponsored by U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Willowbrook), H.R. 32 would expand and unify the definition of homelessness across all federal agencies. Kids who are not in shelters but living doubled up with friends or relatives (and thus eligible for homeless services from the U.S. Department of Education) would also be entitled to services from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“During the 2008 to 2009 school year, the Department of Education identified nearly one million more homeless kids than HUD identified,” Biggert said in prepared material. “Whether they are in a motel or jumping from couch to couch, these kids need help. Under my bill, a child working with the homeless liaison at a local school district could access transitional housing from HUD without fighting through a new layer of federal bureaucracy.”

Nicole Amling, director of public policy at the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, said Biggert’s bill goes beyond the recent reauthorization of homeless assistance programs of the nearly 25-year-old McKinney-Vento Act, which provides federal funds for them. Each year, for example, Chicago’s Continuum of Care receives $54 million – its largest single source of funding – through McKinney-Vento. These funds go to programs such as Deborah’s Place, Heartland Alliance, or Inspiration Corporation, that pro-vide shelter or services to homeless people.

The Chicago Alliance coordinates the application process for the 145 programs in Chicago’s Continuum of Care into one common submission for the city, although HUD maintains individual grant agreements with each program, Amling said. Congress has not fully funded this year’s McKinney- Vento applications up to the necessary $2.4 billion, she said.

Homeless assistance grants will receive only $2 billion, according to a recent newsletter from Housing Action Illinois. The newsletter quotes the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which says this amount will be insufficient to fund all Continuum of Care renewals for transitional and supportive housing, and for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing. “The Alliance estimates that more than 25,000 people would be homeless instead of housed under this legislation…”

On May 20, 2009, President Obama signed the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, which included the HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act of 2009. Although not yet fully implemented, HEARTH codified the Continuum of Care process. It also increases the priority on homeless families with children by providing new resources for rapid re-housing: about $90 million nationally in the last budget, which meant an incremental increase of a couple million to Chicago, Amling said. Resources similar to local Chicago agency, the Emergency Fund, which can provide a one-time payment for rent or utilities, come under this same umbrella.

Most significantly, the HEARTH Act modestly expands the definition of homelessness to include people who are losing their housing in the next 14 days, (instead of the next seven days) and who lack resources or support networks to obtain housing, as well as families and youth who are persistently unstably housed and likely to remain so due to disability, domestic violence or barriers to employment.

The old HUD definition of homelessness had simply encompassed individuals who lacked a “fixed, regular place to sleep or spend the night,” whether emergency shelter or “place not meant for human habitation.” The new definition allows for some people who are living doubled up or “couch surfing,” Amling said. It is a compromise in Congress between those who support the HUD defi-nition and those who would expand it to people who are living doubled up.

This debate is not along party lines, she said, citing Biggert’s bill. Rather, it reflects a concern that Congress has not even fully funded the more narrowly defined homeless population.

“The Chicago Alliance doesn’t have a firm position on this,” Amling said. “It really isn’t a debate that’s being had right now. There was a compromise in the legislation and we are now implementing the legislation. If it comes up in Congress again, we will look at all positions. We will also talk to all of our constituencies. You can imagine there are people here in the city with very different opinions of it.”

McKinney-Vento has always required all school districts, including the Chicago Public Schools, to use the Department of Education’s broader definition of homelessness, Amling said. As of the end of April this year, there were over 16,600 students living in shelters, doubled up, or in other unstable living conditions – a 10 percent increase over the same period last year. It’s a record number, a 35 percent increase over the three years since the recession, and more than a 100 percent increase from April of the 2002-03 school year.

The homelessness of the early 1980s was also the first increase since the Great Depression but grassroots programs addressed it, according to the HUD web site. In addition, the administration of President Ronald Reagan felt that states and local jurisdictions were best equipped to handle the problem. Still, “there was pressure to address homelessness from the top down,” according to the HUD web site.

A federal task force addressed surplus government property for homeless services in 1983. In 1986 Congress passed parts of a Homeless Persons Survival Act. Later that year, emergency relief provisions for shelters, food, mobile health care and transitional housing were introduced as the Urgent Relief for Homeless Act, which passed with large bipartisan majorities in Congress. President Reagan signed it on July 22, 1987.

After the death of its chief Republican sponsor in the House, the bill was named for Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut. In 2000, President Bill Clinton added the name of Bruce Vento to memorialize a Democratic congressman from Minnesota who had also worked for its passage.

Brandon Dunlap, right, with U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Willowbrook) at left and Patricia Nix-Hodes, associate director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Brandon won a CCH Scholarship in 2005. This year’s CCH Scholarship event will be Thursday June 28 in the 10th floor courtroom of the Loyola University School of Law, 25 E. Pearson. The program begins at 6 p.m.

In 1992, the federal law was still relatively new, and many school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, were not in compliance with its civil rights provisions regarding education, said Patricia Nix-Hodes. Just out of law school at the time, Nix-Hodes was working with Laurene Heybach of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago; she is now the associate director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Heybach is the director.

“We would at that time go into homeless shelters in Chicago and routinely encounter homeless kids sitting at the shelter,” Nix-Hodes said. “We would ask the families, ‘why aren’t your kids in school?’

“The response, even though McKinney-Vento had passed, was ‘We didn’t have a lease, we didn’t have a mortgage,’ ” she continued. “Because a lot of times, in order to enroll, schools might require proof of residency, they might require a previous academic record, a birth certificate. So what would happen is that the families would get to the shelter and try to enroll in the local school but be turned away because they didn’t have documentation.”

McKinney-Vento is supposed to remove such barriers to education, she added. Each school district must have a homeless liaison who handles this kind of paperwork instead of making penniless parents travel to the original school. Because of a class action law-suit filed in 1992, the Chicago district has not just one homeless liaison, but one in each CPS school, even if only part-time.

McKinney-Vento gives homeless kids stability by assuring their right to stay in their original school and by providing the transportation to do so, Nix-Hodes said. In Chicago, this amounts to CTA fare cards for the child — and the parent if the child is 6th grade or younger. If the parent is unable to transport the child because of work, school, job training or shelter programming, school busing is available.

The alternative might be to change schools every time the family moved, as much as five or six times a year. Yet with each move, research shows that kids lose four to six months of academic time, Nix-Hodes said. “New curricula, new books, new classmates, new teachers, new teaching philosophies. Each time you change schools it would be difficult for you to maintain progress.”

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless supports Biggert’s legislation because while the HEARTH Act has expanded the definition of homelessness in limited circumstances, it does not “truly reflect all of the unstable living situations families, children, and youth actually endure.” Nix-Hodes also called its verification requirements “onerous.” As a homeless youth, Dunlap had been relying on people’s kindness; he was unwilling to burden them further, she said.

“To ask for proof that an adult allowed me to live with them for only 14 days would possibly cause some adults to feel guilty to put in writing that a homeless child could only stay for 14 days, or worry that they could be in trouble,” Dunlap testified. Instead, Dunlap had developed a “rotation theory,” where he did not stay in the same place two nights in a row and potentially wear out his welcome. He was also wary of attracting the attention of the Department of Children and Family Services, despite homelessness that began when his parents split early in his youth.

Until his graduation from Curie High School, Dunlap had only lived in an apartment with his mother twice, both times for less than a year. In the interim, he lived with his sister, an aunt and five cousins; with next-door neighbors; with the family of his best friend in junior high; with his 20-something cousin; and with his grandmother.

“Books were heavy and trips were long,” he testified. “The time and energy that it took for me to figure out where to sleep each night left little time for homework.” He also skipped sports and extracurriculars in order to work at Subway throughout high school.

Dunlap won a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless scholarship in 2005. He obtained his first stable housing when he attended Kendall College, where he received an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, then a job in the beverage department of the Union League Club of Chicago.

His case illustrates the importance of McKinney-Vento in helping homeless kids obtain an education so that they can avert the cycle, Nix-Hodes said. While the HEARTH Act tried to address the disconnect between the definition used for education and the one used for HUD services, H.R. 32 would create consistency across all federal programs.

“It’s a simple bill, the shortest I’ve ever seen,” Nix-Hodes said. “It says that if another federal program identifies someone as homeless, they should be considered homeless for the purposes of HUD.”

While she acknowledges that the bill is still in subcommittee, she says its passage is the next step forward. “Sometimes these things don’t happen immediately.”

H.R. 32 also has the support of 29 diverse advocacy groups, including the American Bar Association, National Association of Realtors, National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Parent Teacher Association.

Nothing in H.R. 32 specifies funding but it does require a better-informed look at the overall picture of homelessness in the U.S., she said.

“If by accurately counting you see so many more people in need of housing services, that might be an argument for more funding, but nothing in H.R. 32 says you have to provide all that funding.”

Starnica Rodgers and Nicole Amling

Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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