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What is the definition of homelessness? It depends on who you ask

What is the definition of homelessness? It depends on who you ask (WKRC)
What is the definition of homelessness? It depends on who you ask (WKRC)
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CINCINNATI (WKRC) - When it comes to poverty, there are a lot of definitions.

Affordable housing.

Low income.

Even poverty has a definition.

Well, what is the definition of homelessness?

Seems like a simple answer, right?

Well, the answer is - it depends on who you're asking - especially if it's the federal government.

Different agencies offer different resources depending on the definition they follow.

Kevin Finn is the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness - which works with the city of Cincinnati to distribute HUD dollars to entities around the city.

“The federal government has a definition of homelessness is broader,” Finn said, “but then different departments of the federal government pick which part of that definition they’re going to focus their programs on."

And which federal department's definition is picked depends on how and where the resources of that department can be used - or what guidelines have to be followed.

But let's stick with one department's definition for the purpose of this story: HUD's or the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Because HUD is the biggest funder of homeless services in the Tri State.

“HUD only considers someone to be homeless if they’re in one of three situations,” Finn said. “They’re sleeping on the street or a place not meant for human habitation. They’re a resident of a shelter or they’re fleeing domestic violence.

“Since we have a domestic violence shelter locally, that really here in Hamilton county ends up being on the street or in the shelter.”

Lighthouse Youth Services tries to help youth - which can be anyone age 10 to 24 - with their services at the Meecum House and the Sheakley Center.

HUD's definition, Bonita Campbell the vice president of Homeless Youth Services for Lighthouse said, is what creates what they call "couch surfers" - who jumps from different couches with friends or relatives.

“They don’t stick out with a sign that says I’m homeless,” Campbell said. “And I think homeless children, in particular, don’t want to be seen as homeless. We call – a lot of our homeless youth is what we call couch surfers – so they’re gonna hide. They’re gonna be place to place.”

The definition causes Campbell's team to have to ask: where did you sleep last night - to identify that in fact, someone meets HUD's definition.

If they slept on someone's couch, technically, by HUD's definition, they aren't homeless.

So we asked both if the definition was too broad or too narrow or just right?

“What would happen if the definition was expanded is you would have more people competing for already limited resources,” Finn said.

“It’s too narrow,” Campbell said. “To say to a young adult you have to be literally homeless and to live on the streets. When you cross that threshold, that takes strength and it takes courage and it means that person has exhausted every other thing they could possibly do and so children don’t do that. Young adults don’t do that. They are really going everywhere they possibly can before they actually have to do that.

The definition of homelessness is more expansive when it comes to a child enrolled in school.

That's because of federal legislation called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

The act covers children who are not in fixed, adequate or regular housing.

Andrew Pardi is the homeless liaison for Mt. Healthy City Schools.

“Fixed, being not a car or a trailer that's not attached. adequate would be a house say that's sub-standard living like no plumbing, no heat, faulty electric or mold or those kinds of things would be not adequate,” Pardi said. “Regular is like a place you go every night - so people who are couch surfing - that would be non-regular housing.”

The school is obligated to keep children in these situations enrolled in school to help prevent educational disruption

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That's because families and students experiencing homelessness are highly vulnerable and mobile.

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