Local Voices – Mattie

Mattie Lord, Chief Program Officer, UMOM New Day Centers, Phoenix, AZ

“The Homeless Children and Youth Act is really pretty simple. This short bill removes red tape and bureaucracy, restores flexibility to local communities, and provides access to homeless services for families and youth who need them the most. Everyone wins.

Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.’

We can all agree that there are simply not enough resources at any level – local, state, or federal – to meet the growing needs of homeless populations. So how do we ensure that the precious few resources we have are used in the most efficient and effective means to help the people who need them most?

Thus far, HUD’s response has been to make individuals and families categorically eligible (or ineligible) based on where they find refuge after losing their home. I believe there are more sophisticated and accurate ways of determining who is in greatest need.

First, we can no longer afford to prioritize individuals over families and youth. If we don’t start paying attention to the families and youth, we’re never going to end homelessness. While I appreciate the past decade of efforts to end chronic homelessness among individual adults, by neglecting the children and youth experiencing homelessness, we are grooming the next generation of homeless adults. How we treat them matters. Not only are there lifelong effects from the trauma of instability and homelessness, but there’s also a strong correlation between adult and child homelessness. We have discovered that 25% of the adults seeking shelter with us experienced homelessness as a child or youth – a staggering and relevant statistic.

Second, we can no longer afford to ignore the millions of people who are ‘doubled up’ with friends and families because they lack a home of their own. It’s true – they are not visible on the streets – but that doesn’t mean they are safe, stable, and cared for. While staying with others, children, youth, and families are often abused, taken advantage of, threatened, and mistreated. They typically have little or no access to case management, food, transportation, employment resources, child care, and other professional services available to families in shelters. In many ways ‘doubled up’ families and youth are at greater risk than those in shelter. Thirty-nine percent of the families entering our emergency shelter come from ‘doubled up’ situations. While ‘doubled up’ they are ineligible for HUD homeless assistance (with few exceptions); however, once we admit them to shelter, they are categorically eligible. They are the same families with the same complexities, vulnerabilities, and needs. Why must we admit them to shelter in order for them to receive help from HUD? What about the local communities that don’t have emergency shelters? Can we assume that family and youth homelessness doesn’t exist in those communities? Absolutely not.

Third, rather than allowing the federal government to dictate who receives help based on where they are staying and whether or not they can navigate a complex documentation process, perhaps we could devise more appropriate systems based on diverse local needs? Perhaps there are more accurate predictors of vulnerability and need than where a family or youth sleeps? Perhaps we could modify vulnerability assessments or housing barrier questionnaires to ensure that scarce resources are invested in people who need them most?

At our initial meeting with families, prior to admitting them to shelter, we conduct an interview regarding barriers to housing in the community. A ‘low barrier’ family might be a single mother with 2 children who owes utility company money, a situation fairly easy to resolve. A ‘high barrier’ family might be a single mother under the age of 25 with 5 children, no high school diploma or GED, no employment experience, no income, and a history of mental illness. Certainly both families have needs, but which children need HUD’s resources most? What if the low barrier family resides in shelter and the high barrier family lives ‘doubled up’ in a 2 bedroom apartment with a host family? Does that change your opinion? As the law stands, the low barrier family is eligible for HUD homeless services, but the high barrier family is not.

The Homeless Children and Youth Act empowers the community to decide who to serve based on need and available resources.”

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Listen to Youth

There is no better way to understand homelessness than listening to the children and youth who have been through it. Listen to what they have to say.

Get the Facts

The Homeless Children and Youth Act is bi-partisan legislation that would make it easier for local communities to help homeless children, youth, and families. Get the facts.

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About the photos: Photos of children and youth experiencing homelessness provided by Diane Nilan, HEAR US Inc., used with permission. (c) 2012, Diane Nilan, HEAR US Inc.