Poverty advocates have long doubted the relevance of the antiquated federal definition of poverty, which is based on the cost of food in the mid-1950s rather than the cost of living in the 21st century. The federal government recently took an initial step toward redefining the federal definition of poverty using a new formula that more accurately reflects the cost of living and people's assets and incomes.
As homeless advocates, we should follow the lead of those fighting to change the federal definition of poverty and encourage HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) to expand its definition of homelessness to include not only people living in the street or in shelters, but people in motels and with friends and family due to economic hardship, as the McKinney-Vento definition does.
Definitions are important. Definitions provide the constraints in which we collect data. Good data should be representative of reality. However, data is only meaningful when it is collected, and interpreted, in the context of sound definitions.
For example, the City of Pasadena, California, just announced the results of its most recent annual homeless count. Like most homeless counts, the city attempted to enumerate the total number of persons living on the streets or in shelters on a particular day. The city identified a total of 1,137 people as homeless, a 13 percent increase over last year. Provide homes for those 1,137 and the problem disappears, right? Wrong.
While I have serious doubts about the methodologies used in homeless counts generally, my point here is not to dispute the method of the count, but rather to comment on the definition it is predicated on. It is simply inane to assess the level of homelessness in a community and not include people living in motels or double or triple occupying cramped apartments with friends or family. The risk in not adopting a more realistic definition of homelessness is very real.
If we are to end homelessness, we have to agree on what homelessness means, and how we measure it. The current HUD definition, which acts as the basis for homeless counts, fundamentally obscures our ability to assess the true number of persons experiencing homelessness. I believe that data is important, but I don't like playing number games. If we end homelessness based on a definition that under-counts the true degree of human suffering, we will have ended homelessness by definition, but not by deed.
Photo credit: Horia Varlan