Homelessness is dangerous, especially for kids. They are more vulnerable to become victims of crime; they’re more vulnerable to disease, and they’re more likely to become victims of human trafficking. Homeless kids do worse in school than their peers and they have a harder time developing social skills. These effects of homelessness can last a lifetime.
Fortunately we have some incredible groups working on the front lines every day in Ohio, like Lighthouse Youth Services in Cincinnati. My wife Jane and I have toured Lighthouse and we were really impressed with the compassionate work that they do. I believe that the federal government should be a partner with organizations like Lighthouse that help end child homelessness.
The federal government does provide help for homeless families, but, unfortunately, a lot of kids who should be eligible are unable to use these services.
If you ask the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) how many kids are homeless, they’ll tell you that about 121,000 kids are homeless on a given night.
But if you ask the Department of Education, they’ll tell you that the number is more like 1.2 million — including 27,000 just in Ohio. That’s about ten-times as many kids. So why are these numbers so different?
Let me give you an example. Let’s say a mom in Ohio leaves an abusive husband and takes her kids with her. They might have to move from motel to motel, or from a friend’s house to another friend’s house every few nights. That mom might only be able to have a place to stay for the next few nights. She and her family would be considered homeless by the Department of Education — but not by HUD.
Think about young people who age out of the foster care system. If a young woman ages out of the foster care system when she is still in high school, she has nowhere to call home. She would be considered homeless by the Department of Education, but not by HUD, even though she may be “couch surfing,” staying with different families. Cases like these are happening all across Ohio, as more than 1,000 kids age out of the foster system in Ohio every year.
The problem is that HUD’s definition of homelessness only includes those without a roof over their head or those in an emergency shelter. As a result, a lot of kids who are vulnerable — nine out of 10 — are being left out of these HUD programs.
That just doesn’t make sense.
Congress can and should fix this problem. That’s why Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and I recently reintroduced legislation we’ve worked on for several years now to fix this problem. It’s called the Homeless Children and Youth Act, which requires that HUD use the broader definition of homelessness so that these families can get the help that they need.
Under our legislation, families who will lose their housing within the next 30 days would now be eligible for these critical programs. Right now, they’re on their own.
That would make a difference for hundreds of thousands of kids across the country by giving them access to support from HUD. Getting this assistance at a time of need could potentially have a lifetime of benefits for each of them by giving them a safe, stable environment, and helping them do better in school.
Our bill is not a silver bullet, but it’s a key step toward a goal we should all share — ending child homelessness. It’s a step we should take.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.