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New definition of homeless would give kids more help

Trinity Bock reacts as sees her new socks and other items. More than 140 children at the Road Home homeless shelter receive school supplies, clothing and haircuts Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 as they prepare for a new school year.
Trinity Bock reacts as sees her new socks and other items. More than 140 children at the Road Home homeless shelter receive school supplies, clothing and haircuts Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 as they prepare for a new school year.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They are the hidden homeless.

They are families, out of economic necessity, that share a dwelling with another family. Some live out of their cars or couch surf with someone they may or may not know. Some bed down in tents along the Jordan River or other places hidden from view. Others stay in hotels as they are able.

Because they live outside of shelters, they're not eligible for federally funded programs that could connect them with supportive housing, food and mental health services. A bill before Congress aims to amend the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of "homelessness," which would help children and families living in motels, cars or temporarily with others to obtain needed services.

National advocates say passage of the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2014 "would eliminate the definitional obstacles and funding restrictions that effectively deny most homeless children basic assistance," according to the First Focus Campaign for Children.

Mike Harman, of the Salt Lake City School District, says two-thirds of the nearly 800 school-age students he works with as the district's homeless education liaison are children whose families have lost their housing and are living temporarily with other family members.

Children whose parents don't have a place to call home may end up enrolling in multiple schools in a given school year.

"I have a student right now who's already been in three schools this year, and we're in the third week of school," Harman said.

For many reasons, the school district works hard to keep children in the same school. Their school, classroom teacher and classmates are important anchors in a child's life, he said.

The school district helps by providing public transportation passes or gasoline money, so the student, no matter how many times his or her physical address changes, can stay in the same school for the school year.

When families don't have permanent housing, it often means their nutritional needs aren't being met, either.

"If we get them into school, we serve them breakfast, lunch and a snack, if they stay for after school programs. Some of our schools even serve dinner through the (Utah Food Bank's) Kids Cafe program. But if these kids who aren't in school, it becomes a huge issue," Harman said.

Children whose families live out of cars or are doubling up in an apartment or house are frequently sleep-deprived, he said.

"You're not going to be able to read if you can't keep your eyes open. Sometimes we tell them 'Just go sleep for an hour and come back and then we'll work on your homework,'" he said.

Keeping a child in the same classroom for the school year has academic and social benefits. They're more apt to make friends and feel connected to the school community, Harman said.

"The research shows the more they change schools, the more they fall behind. With a lot of these kids, they're behind at the get-go. Once you get them to school, you want to keep them there," Harman said.

According to the First Focus Campaign for Children, there are 1.1 million homeless children enrolled in the nation's schools. If they are ineligible for services under HUD or can't "prove" their homelessness, they are denied access to services.

"Homeless children and their families, along with unaccompanied youth, face urgent housing needs. We must change federal policy so that local communities can address them," said Jeremy Rosen, director of advocacy at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing & Child Welfare, said the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2014 "restores HUD to its proper role of helping communities prevent and end homelessness for all vulnerable community members.

"After a decade's worth of harmful, Washington-driven homeless policy that stripped funding from family, domestic violence and youth shelters and services, the HCYA comes not a day too soon."

Zac Bale, vice president of external relations for Volunteers of America - Utah, which operates a homeless youth resource center, conducts homeless outreach and operates transitional housing for older teens, said limitations on federal funding presents challenges for direct-service providers.

Federal grants have become increasingly competitive and the some funding streams are limited to specific purposes. To hedge against those conditions, VOA has become increasingly reliant on private funding for some of its programs, he said.

Legislation that would expand the HUD definition of homeless and open up funding opportunities would be welcome, especially to better serve unaccompanied minors.

"With our street outreach, we know there are a lot youth in the community sleeping on the street, in cars or with families they may or may not know. We know we need feet on the ground out there looking for those folks," Bale said.

VOA seeks to reunify youth with their families when it is safe and appropriate. "They're at such a critical age. They need to be around supportive adults, such as paid, trained staff and volunteers who are good role models and hold boundaries," Bale said.