Homeless women and children undercounted and underserved.
By Jeeni Criscenzo
It looks like the issue of homelessness will be getting some airtime during the 2016 election season in San Diego. That should be good news for anyone who is deeply concerned about homelessness in the region. Problem is that some candidates might use the issue to put forth solutions, without taking the time to understand the problem.
By feeding the electorate with misinformation that plays into their eagerness for a quick and easy fix to the city’s growing homeless situation, they will not only fail to solve the problem, they will exacerbate it.
Take a recent plan offered by San Diego City Attorney candidate, Robert P. Hickey, that he calls his “Community Care Plan”. Why would the City Attorney be making homelessness a cornerstone to his campaign?
The cover letter on Hickey’s plan starts with a story of a mentally ill, heroin addict who’s been through rehab six times and refuses to go through it again. There’s a popular adage about the definition of insanity being when one keeps doing the same thing yet expects different results. That doesn’t stop Hickey from proposing that we force homeless people to go into rehab even after they have failed 6 prior times.
Hickey proposes that by opening the lines of communication between law enforcement and service providers and utilizing “tough love strategies” (i.e. mandatory drug treatment) we can tackle the problem of homelessness. He cites research that shows success rates for mandated drug treatment are similar to voluntary treatment. But while the chart he includes in his plan does indeed show slightly better results in year one, it actually shows that voluntary treatment has better outcomes in 5-years.
But who actually studies charts anyway?
Hickey goes on to list some national best practices that we should be doing here in San Diego, including coordinated intake assessment, outreach to local landlords and implementing “Housing First”. Perhaps whoever wrote this plan for Hickey isn’t aware that San Diego, as part of the 25 Cities Campaign to End Homelessness, has already put these practices into place. And perhaps he doesn’t realize that supporting the “Housing First” model in Step 1 and calling for increased punishment for repeat drug offenders in Step 2, is a bit of a non sequitur.
Even if you force an addicted person into rehab, if they don’t have a stable place to live afterward, they are going to go right back to being homeless and self-medicating. What’s more, playing into public paranoia about homeless people by portraying them as mostly male drug addicts who should be removed from our streets and thrown in jail, does nothing to solve the very real problem of thousands of human beings in our county not having a place to live.
If we want to end homelessness in San Diego, we must start with some cold hard facts: 1. The face of a homeless person is more often a single woman or a child, than the schizophrenic man you see curled up in a doorway (I prove this later in this column); 2. The numbers of homeless people are more than double what are reported in HUD’s annual Point-In-Time count; 3. What makes a person homeless is that they don’t have a place to live, and until we increase our affordable housing stock by at least 10,000 units, we can do all of the coordinated intake and landlord outreach, and we can specify Housing First in our plans, but we will hit a brick wall when it comes to actually housing people because there simply is nowhere for very low income people to live.
WeALLCount but families don’t get counted
HUD mandates that a homeless count is conducted throughout the country in late January. The Point in Time Count (PITC), recently renamed WeALLCount, is supposed to identify the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals and their location. Communities across the country conduct this homeless census during the last ten days of January.
This January 29, 2016, it is expected that 1,500 volunteers will help to count and interview unsheltered homeless persons throughout San Diego County. (To volunteer click here.) Interviews are conducted in the days immediately following the count to collect demographic data, such as gender and family and veteran status.
Since HUD and the VA use this data to allocate funds for homeless programs, the failure of this one-day survey to accurately count thousands of homeless women and children, means that programs focused on this population can’t get funding.
For example, according to data provided by the VA, based on the 2014 Point-in-Time count, in San Diego County there were only 4 unsheltered veteran households with children out of a total of 517 unsheltered veteran households. Those of us who field calls from homeless women veterans with children every day, know that this number is ludicrous.
Using PITC data to allocate funds for homeless programs, combined with the HUD priority to end chronic homelessness, ends up earmarking only 1% of funds for families even though 23.6% of homeless persons are in families and only 14.6% of all homeless persons are chronically homeless.
So it should come as no surprise that since 2011, the numbers for every homeless population have decreased EXCEPT FOR FAMILIES.
Why don’t homeless women and children get counted?
So why the discrepancy? Women and children are the hidden homeless. For reasons of their own safety and their children, women will not sleep anywhere that they are visible unless they have no other option. I have seen women sleeping on the sidewalk downtown in the middle of the day. My first thought was that they are drunk or drugged, but I came to learn that women will sometimes stay awake all night because they are afraid to be completely vulnerable while asleep at night. If they sleep in public while people are walking around them on the sidewalk, they are less likely to be assaulted.
Women with children do not want to be identified by Child Protective Services (CPS) for fear their children will be taken away from them. They will stay with a friend or family member, couch surfing until they have worn out their welcome, or determined the situation is too dangerous. Sadly, they often return to abusive partners (the devil they know) or trade sex for a place to sleep.
When all of those volunteers are out counting homeless people in alleys and parks on January 29th, there will be thousands of women staying in ‘hidden’, informal and marginalized homeless accommodation situations who will never get counted.
Also, since most emergency shelters do not take children, or the conditions do not feel safe, or women cannot get their children from school and walk back to the shelter before the cut-off time, they are not getting counted in the “sheltered” count either.
HUD’s narrow definition of homeless leaves out the hidden homeless.
Under the Hearth Act, in order to use HUD funding for programs to assist homeless persons, the individual must fall under categories that exclude families who are couch surfing or doubling up, paying for a motel for part of the month until their money runs out, or recently discharged from the military. Families and unaccompanied youth staying with other people out of necessity are eligible for HUD Homeless assistance only if:
- They can prove that they can stay there only for 14 days or less, and have no subsequent permanent place to go, and no support networks needed to obtain other housing. To prove this, HUD regulations require that unaccompanied youth and families obtain a statement from the owner or renter of the place where they are staying that they can only be there for less than 14 days (HUD’s category two) ((Id. §§ 583.5, “Homeless” (2) & 583.301(b)(3)(C)); or
- They can prove that they moved twice in 60 days, AND they did not have permanent housing for those 60 days, AND that they have a specified physical or mental condition that would keep them without permanent housing for a long time. Each of these conditions requires extensive documentation. (HUD’s category three) (Id. §§ 583.5, “Homeless” (3) & 583.301(b)(4))
Families staying with others out of necessity are often breaking lease agreements by exceeding occupancy; owners/renters of the housing are unlikely to provide a statement that anyone is living there. They are at the mercy of the people with whom they are staying and can be asked to leave at a moment’s notice and never know how long they can stay. Families who pay to stay in motels never know how long they will be able to stay there.
How can we count the hidden homeless?
All schools are required to report the number of students enrolled who are homeless to the U.S. Census. Fortunately this count includes families who are couch surfing or living in hotels/motels. This data can easily be found at Kidsdata.org. These numbers reveal a far different picture of the number of homeless households in San Diego County and City than HUD’s PITC.
In 2014 there were 22,189 homeless public school students in San Diego County (up from 15,685 in 2011). 80% were doubled up with friends or relatives; 3.5% were in hotels/motels; 13.5% were in temporary shelters; and 3.1% were unsheltered.
If we just look at the students who are doubled up and in motels, and assume the others were somehow included in the PITC, and we plug in the average number of children per family (for Single female head of household with children under 18) 1.86 (U.S. Census), we come up with 9,961 homeless households with children in San Diego County who are not included in the PITC numbers. This number doesn’t include the families with preschool children and no children enrolled in school, or families who do not enroll their children in school because they are too transitory or fear that CPS will take their children. The illustration below shows how we can apply this same calculation to just San Diego Unified School District.
So if you want to offer a plan for ending homelessness in the City of San Diego, it should start with a plan for adding 10,000 very-low-income affordable units to our housing stock. And that might just be a job for the City Attorney, if they are willing to look at the monkey business going on with the funds that were supposed to be used for affordable housing. Any candidate willing to do that gets my vote.