Advocates differ on definition of youth homelessness
Most nights, Cynthia Fernan can find someone — a friend, relative or maybe a friend of a friend — willing to make room. She has kept a roof over her head for years by couch-surfing.
According to federal education standards, the 21-year-old has long been homeless. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development might see Fernan's situation differently.
"It's very frustrating," said Rep. Steve Stivers, an Upper Arlington Republican who is pushing to align the way agencies view youths without permanent homes. "We need to be able to define the problem."
The Homeless Children and Youth Act was reintroduced this week in Congress by Stivers and other sponsors, including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, also a Republican. First proposed in 2014, the bipartisan bill is again dividing advocates for the homeless.
Critics say an expanded definition of child and youth homelessness could make tens of thousands more people eligible for federal assistance programs and overwhelm a system that is already underfunded.
A HUD report to Congress in 2016, for example, says a point-in-time count showed the nation had 170,820 homeless youths under the age of 25. Data from the Department of Education for the 2014-2015 school year, meanwhile, showed the population of homeless children had soared to 1.2 million.
"I certainly support the intention behind it," said Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board in Columbus. "The concern I've got is that there's no additional resources, and I would hate to see resources diverted from youths who are literally homeless on the street."
Stivers and others say the change could help to reveal the extent of youth homelessness by counting more of those who live in motels, doubled-up households and other tenuous situations, and who often can't meet HUD's strict definition and documentation requirements.
Clearing the way for more assistance now can help prevent youths from joining the chronically homeless later, he said.
"I don't think the questions they're asking are unfair," Stivers said of those who oppose the expanded definition. "But we can't let this be a food fight between kids and adults."
Barbara Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said government badly needs a different and more coordinated approach to helping a population that's often overlooked. Re-tooling the HUD definition also could give local communities flexibility to better serve homeless youths, she said.
"People just don't know," said 19-year-old Precious Smoot. "They think it's just the adults out there. I was homeless for 9 1/2 months before I got any help."
Smoot is now part of a transitional living program at Huckleberry House, a crisis shelter for youths in the University District. Stivers and Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Democrat from Jefferson Township, visited Huckleberry House on Tuesday to announce the reintroduction of the Homeless Children and Youth Act.
Fernan, who traveled to Washington to speak on behalf of the bill the last time, also was there. She is working with the Columbus-based Youth Empowerment Program and shares her story to raise awareness.
"She'd been couch-surfing for about a year then," Stivers said of Fernan's earlier presentation, "and now it's been four. We've kind of watched Cynthia grow up."
Although she still doesn't have a stable home, Fernan said she finally is graduating from high school and she has a job interview this week. She also tries to help her younger siblings.
Beatty said more resources won't flow until the nation has a better handle on the needs of homeless youths. No one can doubt, she said, "that there are thousands of Cynthias."
This article first appeared on the Columbus Dispatch's website on March 14, 2017.