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Varying Definitions of Homelessness Impact Access to Services

definitions_small The definition of homelessness utilized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development precludes many from qualifying for vital services and resources.

Who is identified as experiencing homelessness and who is not varies under federal definitions, and when interpretations of the term are strict, individuals and communities may be unable to access the resources they need.

According to a recent report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), the vast majority of those experiencing homelessness in Chicago from 2015 to 2019 were doubled-up, a term used to describe those temporarily staying with others, such as friends or family, out of necessity. Yet, with a few exceptions, doubled-up families and individuals are not considered homeless under the definition used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Unlike those living in shelters or on the streets, all of whom qualify under HUD's definition of the term, the doubled-up homeless are hidden from view. "The difference in definition is between visible homelessness versus invisible homelessness," said Darla Bardine, Executive Director of the National Network for Youth. "There's this false narrative that the visibly homeless are the most in need," she said.

Julie Dworkin, Director of Policy at CCH, added that those living doubled-up are categorically homeless: "The fact of the matter is, the household doesn't have a home of their own. They've lost their housing probably due to financial circumstances. They're just basically getting unofficial shelter at someone's house, but it's not necessarily a better or even more stable situation than a shelter."

The effects of HUD's definition are far-reaching. "Those who are doubled-up face significant barriers to qualify for services – like case management or shelter – which really make a difference in getting people out of the cycle of homelessness, until they end up being homeless according to HUD's definition," said Tedd Peso, Director of Strategic Partnerships at The Night Ministry.

But not all federal definitions of homelessness are so strict, and some include "invisible" populations. The Department of Education (USDE), for example, adopts a broader understanding of what constitutes homelessness for young people, one that includes those who live doubled-up, as well as those in motels, camping grounds, substandard housing, and more.

As a result, school districts are required to provide students USDE defines as homeless with services, resources, and additional rights including immediate enrollment in school even if they missed the enrollment deadline, transportation, school choice, and waived fees – all intended to prevent homelessness from affecting their academic engagement.

"Everyone — no matter what their individual experience of homelessness looks like — deserves access to the supportive services that will help them secure safe and stable housing. The longer there is confusion over who can get access to these services, the longer it is going to take us to end homelessness," said Peso. 

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