Atlantic Cities

How Do You Define Who's Homeless in a Recession?

How Do You Define Who's Homeless in a Recession?
Reuters

Earlier this fall, the Census Bureau released new data on the number of households doubling up during the recession. Back in 2007, 27.7 percent of all adults in America were combining households under the same roof. By the spring of this year, that number had jumped to 30 percent, one of the surest signs that the recession is hitting families closest to home: in their basic ability to shelter themselves. The true number may be even higher, as researchers estimate that many households under-report the number of friends and relatives cramming in, either out of fear of the landlord or the immigration officer.

But how should society approach all these "doubled up" people? Technically, they don’t have homes of their own. But does that make them "homeless," a term traditionally reserved for people who have no other option than a shelter?

Housing advocates for years have wrestled with how to handle this population. But now, as their ranks swell – and have grown to include working and middle-class families – our existing conception of who counts as homeless and who doesn’t seems inadequate to cover the vast challenges faced by people who aren’t living off the street but who are living inside motels, neighbors’ basements and friends' living rooms.

"In a lot of ways, those people are maybe more vulnerable than folks who’ve just had an eviction notice," says Molly Scott, a research associate with the Urban Institute, “because a lot of them have already had an eviction notice.”

Homeless advocacy groups have lobbied [PDF] for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand its definition of homelessness to consider such families (and particularly their children) when applying homeless prevention and assistance funds.

Last week, however, HUD released a final ruling clarifying its definition of homelessness. The new rule includes families and individuals who don’t have a “fixed, regular and adequate” place to sleep, and those who’ve been staying in an emergency shelter or some “place not meant for human habitation.” The rule stresses, though, that “emergency shelter” does not mean transitional housing – in other words, a neighbor’s couch. The rule also targets families who are at risk of “imminent loss of housing” – but requires a formal eviction notice to prove this.

The federal government is understandably in a bind. If we funneled resources to doubled-up families, would that come at the expense of the traditionally homeless who don’t even have relatives to rely on?

“The devil’s advocate would say housing subsidies are so rare and so hard to get, that you give people an incentive to double up as a way to get a housing subsidy,” Scott says. “We have to think about what factors about that living situation are unsustainable, and most put people at risk. And I’m not sure what those characteristics are.”

There’s a lot we don’t know about doubled-up households in general, she adds. We don’t know exactly how many of them there are, how many people live in each one, what the ratio of income to inhabitants is and how these households pool resources to cover bills.

There’s also the risk that in expanding the definition of homelessness, we might apply it to people who don’t welcome the stigma.

“I don’t know if we can agree about whether they’re homeless or not, but do they have to be ‘homeless’?” Scott asks. “The only conversation we’ve had is exclusively around that, and I think that’s probably not so positive, especially since we have more and more folks who are falling into that category.”

Perhaps the recession calls for the creation of some other language that speaks to the needs of the millions of families who aren’t in stable housing, but who aren’t on the street either.

“How can we think about it more holistically, because doubled-up folks aren’t necessarily homeless, but is there some way we can think about how we allocate housing resources more broadly, and not just have the debate contained within the homelessness community?” Scott asks. “Those families may be folks who should be priorities with housing subsidies.”

Photo credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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