On Wednesday, January 28 members of congress and several advocacy groups came together to unveil the introduction of the Homeless Children and Youth. Act of 2015. The legislation would amend federal housing law to change the definition of homeless youth to align with other federal programs such as the Runaway and Homeless youth Act, the McKinney-Vento Act and the Violence Against Women Act (VOWA). By clarifying how homeless youth are defined under federal housing law it would provide greater access to public housing for potentially more than 1 million young people who are now surviving through various homeless arrangements.
The bipartisan and bicameral legislation (HR 576/S 256) is being sponsored by Congressman Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Congressman Dave Loebsack (D-IA) and in the Senate by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Loebsack opened the briefing with comments on how significant the legislation was and how wide spread the problem is throughout the country in both urban and rural centers.
The bill would give local housing authorities greater authority and discretion to cover young people and would not mandate an expansion but create the ability to extend housing to some young people who don’t currently meet the definition of “homeless.” Young people who “couch-surf” or live in temporary accommodations do not meet the definition of homeless. Couch-surfing is a term applied to a young person who may be finding housing by staying days at a time at the house of a friend or family member using a couch as a temporary reprieve until they move to the next arrangement. They do not meet the homeless definition if they were staying in temporary cheap hotel rooms. These same young people could qualify if they moved to a potentially dangerous adult homeless shelter or lived on the street.
At the bill introduction, Cynthia Fernan from Columbus, Ohio gave perspective as a homeless youth who is going to school. She talked about her experiences being homeless at the age of 16 attending a school designed to assist high-risk young people (16 to 23). She has been told that more than half of the young people attending the school are considered couch surfers. Other speakers included Stephanie Van Housen, a homeless student liaison (under the McKinney-Vento Act) in Iowa city community school district. She monitors and assists students who are considered homeless children and youth. In her comments she detailed the challenges of one of her current student who is 18 and just getting by with the numerous challenges any homeless child faces while trying to maintain an education. She detailed his struggles as a young student who would be helped by the change in law. Karen Gruneisen, San Francisco, Episcopal Community Services, described some of the support services in the city of San Francisco and highlighted some of the risks that young people face if they are forced to meet the homeless definition by living on the street or living in small hotels. She described some of the dangers that may exist in such hotels which sometimes include on-going criminal activities including prostitution, drug trafficking and may include dangerous populations of adults including registered sex offenders.
The briefing and the bills are supported by First Focus, the National Association for Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) and the National Network for Youth among others.