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NATIONAL | fall 2006

Women and Children Last
Victims of violence and their families are low priority in federal homeless policy

Laura Stewart (not her real name), a survivor of domestic violence, is currently staying at a homeless shelter in Wichita, Kan. She’d love to obtain long-term government housing support, especially since her seriously disabled daughter requires 24-hour nursing care. But Laura isn’t high on the priority list for such support. Current U.S. policy, under a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homeless initiative put in place by the Bush administration, focuses its attention on "chronically homeless" individuals, while underfunding programs for homeless families and women who have suffered domestic violence (about two-thirds of all homeless women).

In 2001, the Bush administration set a goal of “ending chronic homelessness in 10 years.” The chronically homeless were defined as “unaccompanied homeless individuals with a disabling condition who have either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” By definition, families—and those who are more “temporarily” homeless, such as victims of domestic violence—don’t qualify. The idea behind the Bush plan is that by somehow solving in 10 years the problem of the chronically homeless— who form a more visible presence on the streets—resources can then be released to serve other homeless populations. But the trickle-down concept hasn’t worked. There is no evidence that any savings have been passed on to other homeless populations, nor is there a plan to do so.

Many communities have witnessed significant growth in the scale and severity of homelessness among those who do not fit the “chronically homeless” paradigm, such as families fleeing domestic violence or unaccompanied youth. But with the annual federal housing budget at a virtual standstill, funding that may have once gone to domestic violence shelters, social services for children or job training programs is now being siphoned off to serve the narrowfocus of the initiative.

To make matters worse, the HUD definition of homelessness fails to include the types of living situations that are most prevalent for homeless families. With the danger of the streets and a shortage of shelters—or no shelters at all—many homeless families must stay temporarily in motels or with other people. Those living situations are often overcrowded, unwelcoming, dangerous and all-too-common. The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2005 Survey on Hunger and Homelessness revealed that 32 percent of all families seeking emergency shelter had to be turned away for lack of space.

The president’s “homeless czar,” Philip Mangano, has lobbied against expanding federal homeless assistance to these families, arguing that it would interfere with the administration’s 10-year plan. Two current federal legislative proposals, S. 1801 and H.R. 5041, would put into law much of that policy. Could it be that the real goal of the initiative, and this legislation, is to clear the streets of the visibly homeless and redefine the rest of the homeless population out of existence?

As we recognize National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, we can’t forget how often it links to homelessness. One of the ways the federal government could offer better shelter to victims of violence is to discard the “chronic” initiative. Then, it could support real efforts to prevent and end homelessness for all who suffer it.

Brad Paul is executive director of the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness.