Homelessness Redefined

May 18, 2016

In January the government’s new definition of “chronically homeless” took effect. The agency says this new definition, which has been years in the making, will aid in eliminating chronic homelessness by 2017, two years after an earlier deadline for that same goal. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports that when it comes to defining chronic homelessness, however, little seems definite.

MARK CAHERTY: Wake up with animals, things crawling on you or whatnot. Learn to wrap up in plastic and all that. Learn to sleep up off the ground if you can.

Mark Caherty’s decade-long homelessness ended recently, thanks to vigorous community efforts to help him and others in similar situations.

CAHERTY: There were too many issues that couldn't be resolved.... Who would have expected?

Just as Caherty faced many uncertainties as a homeless person, ambiguity is woven through much of the discussion about homelessness, as well.

WOLFE: This isn't black and white. This is really grey.

That’s Lisa Wolfe, Regional Public Affairs Officer in the Office of Field Policy and Management. She’s talking about the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new definition of “chronically homeless” in the context of the Obama Administration’s plan to prevent and end homelessness, which is touted as “the nation’s first strategy” to do so.

WOLFE: When you have a major, concerted, first-time effort like this, it's really important for everyone to be on the same page in terms of what the various types or classifications of homelessness are.

Basically, the new definition says that to be considered “chronically homeless,” a person must have a disability (that was in the earlier definition, too) but goes on to clarify the amount of time a person must be homeless during the last 3 years--12 months continuously, or 12 months cumulatively over at least 4 separate occasions--and requires that time to be documented.

WONG:  If you're unable to document it, then it's difficult for them to gain access into those types of housing options.

Michael Wong has been Executive Director of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority since 2001. He understands that the new definition may help allocate resources to those most in need, but was surprised by its time-requirement severity. The new definition has been in effect now for only a few months, but Wong predicts that it will have an impact in the future when homeless people try to access permanent housing with supportive services.

Documenting that someone meets the criteria to fit the definition is not exactly straightforward. Consider this scenario focusing on the time requirement:

Under the new definition, if someone is homeless on 4 different episodes for 3 months each time--that’s the required 12 months--they would be considered “chronically homeless.” However, if that same person would have been homeless on only 3 different occasions even though they were each for, say, 8 months--that’s a cumulative total of 24 months--they would not qualify because even though that person would have been on the street twice as long, it was only over 3 episodes.

CLYMER KURTZ: Am I confused or does that just not make any sense?

SHANNON PORTER:  I think you and I are pretty reasonably smart guys, but we're having a hard time pinning this down ourselves.

Shannon Porter is Executive Director of Mercy House in Harrisonburg. He says that nomenclature matters.

PORTER: My definition of most vulnerable may include other factors beyond just this limited definition.

It turns out that what determines an episode of homelessness is not the homelessness, but the not homelessness--that is, a person’s breaks from homelessness. HUD’s definition provides some flexibility because those breaks can be documented by the self-report of the individual seeking assistance.

The indefinite nature of discussion about homelessness is further apparent in a HUD claim about homelessness in Virginia.

WOLFE: As you, know, Virginia was the first state in the nation to effectively end veteran homelessness.

CLYMER KURTZ: So there are no homeless veterans in Virginia?

WOLFE: So what we acknowledge with ending homelessness in any of these areas, that as of last November we declared that simply because Virginia has put a system in place so that when a veteran is identified that that individual will not be homeless for long. Meaning there is now a system in place to quickly react.

Official definitions about homelessness can also exclude people who might otherwise be considered homeless. Couch surfers and people who park their RV’s at friends’ houses or campgrounds don’t necessarily count under any HUD definition of homelessness. But, as Wong maintains,

WONG: If you call a duck a duck, and it quacks because it's a duck, it's pretty much a duck. They're pretty much homeless.

Definitions aside, Wong says that thanks to a partnership between a number of different service providers and community organizations in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, some previously homeless people have obtained permanent supportive housing, in the new Commerce Village, a $4.2 million, 30-unit project serving veterans and other chronically homeless individuals in Harrisonburg.

Veteran Mark Caherty is one of those people. He’s still getting used to his new normal.

CAHERTY: I was having muscle strain, and I couldn't figure out what it was. Then I realized it was from getting in and out of a bed. I hadn't used those muscles in so long they’d atrophied.