Homeless seems like a simple word. It is an adjective. A homeless person means lacking a home. We also use it as a noun. The homeless are people who do not have a permanent place to live. Either way it conjures up images of bedraggled men carrying brown paper bags with contents in the shape of a bottle. They are people who sleep under bridges or on park benches.
Not so many years ago we called them vagrants - people who hop freight trains leaving somewhere and going nowhere. Today we recognize homeless people can be underage youth, single adults of any age, families with children and even the elderly. Advocates for the homeless have demonstrated it is a diverse group.
The McKinney Vento Act has defined the word for use in HUD assisted housing. The HEARTH act created categories of homelessness. Various programs must restrict eligibility by serving people in certain categories of homelessness.
Category One: literally homeless
Category Two: at imminent risk of homelessness, lacks a home of their own or lacks the resources to obtain and maintain a home
Category Three: Unaccompanied youth < 25, or families with children and youth who qualify as homeless under other federal Statutes such as Administration for Children and Families programs
Category Four: Fleeing/Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence. Since it is likely you serve persons fleeing domestic violence you probably think you only need to learn about Category Four.
What does Literally Homeless mean to HUD? This is, well, quite literal. This category of homelessness is the most restrictive category for eligibility. These individuals or families have spent at least one night living in conditions that do not offer long term, stable housing. At least one of those nights is the one immediately preceding the day they turn in paperwork to get affordable housing.
HEARTH allows families to enter one of its CoC permanent programs if they were in at least one of the following situations.
1. A shelter designed to provide temporary living arrangements. Traditionally shelter residents must leave no later than 90 days. If that means a family with children will return to the streets you might think shelter operators are cold, uncaring people (maybe even the one at your agency). From the shelter owner’s point of view there is a critical reason for sticking to this limit. Once a person exceeds 90 days they are entitled to the rights of tenants who have a lease. Shelter residents do not have to have a written lease to gain these rights; they are implied. The shelter then becomes subject to landlord-tenant laws.
2. Living on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings or other places not fit for human habitation. You can’t get any more literal than this. Occasionally the line may blur. For example, if your client lives in a house that lacks basic services, such as working heat, housing providers may not be able to consider your client homeless. The landlord still has a valid contract. Your tenant has legal options that are not necessarily costly but technically they aren’t homeless.
3. Leaving transitional housing and they were living in a shelter or on the streets at the time they entered transitional housing. If your client lives in transitional housing but they are facing their time limit they can qualify as street homeless. The date they must leave the premises is the date upon which you should submit your certificate of homelessness.
4. Exiting an institution where they resided for ≤ 90 days AND were literally homeless immediately prior to entering the institution. When your clients have been in a place such as a jail or hospital for a short stay they do not lose their homeless status. If they end up staying for 90 days or more they are not considered street homeless.
This is not as ridiculous as it may first sound. Most states prohibit institutions from releasing a person into homelessness. They must have a discharge plan that has identified a place for the client to go. Thus the state assumes they will not be homeless. If jails or hospitals are releasing clients into homelessness there is advocacy work to be done, but this won’t qualify your clients as literally homeless.
5. Staying in a hotel or motel paid for by charitable organizations or by government programs and they were in shelters or on the street immediately prior to entering the hotel/motel. If the Salvation Army or United Way, for example, pay a motel on your clients’ behalf, they meet HUD’s definition.
You won’t find HUD’s definitions of homelessness in the Webster Dictionary. It gets to make up its own for those who need to use its resources. Though brief, these are the key concepts you will need to understand for helping your clients get HUD assisted housing through the local CoC. I won’t be giving a test on what you have learned. That will come in the real world when you involve yourself in local planning. At least housing providers will know you have done your homework.