Federal legislation to amend the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act could have significant effects on Monroe County’s homeless and the agencies that assist them.

The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act of 2009 has been in committee since April 2009. If passed, the bill would most likely take effect in 2011 and would reauthorize the McKinney-Vento Act as well as revise the definition of “homeless.”

In addition, the act would make more federal funds available for programs that support homeless persons.

“It’s the first time in 20 years that (the Department of) Housing and Urban Development has looked at the definition of homelessness,” said Warren Wade, assistant director of Stepping Stones, Inc. in Bloomington.

Part of the proposed bill expands the definition of a homeless youth, which would allow agencies who serve unaccompanied youth to help more of them.

“All this is speculative,” Wade said. “It hasn’t passed yet, and it wouldn’t take effect until 2011, but there are pretty huge implications of what it could mean.”

Youth experiencing homelessness often miss out on educational opportunities, Wade said.

“Fifty to 75 percent of youth that experience homelessness have or will drop out of high school,” Wade said. “(The number of) youth experiencing homelessness who have the ability to go to college has significantly dropped.”

Advocates say the HEARTH bill could have positive effects on the education of homeless youth.

“At the forefront of my mind, the expansion of this definition can immediately lead to us advocating for homeless youth in the educational realm,” said Kim Meyer, executive director of the Youth Services Bureau of Monroe County, in an e-mail. “We can assist in advocating for these youth to attend a school in a location near where they are staying, thus having better access to schooling.”

Stepping Stones offers semi-supervised transitional housing for youth aged 16 to 20 who are experiencing homelessness. The residents are required to obtain employment while in the program as well as work toward a high school diploma or GED if they don’t already have one.

“For my program, my kids have to meet (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)’s definition for what homeless is, but in the future, as part of this act, I will be able to serve unaccompanied youth that meet other federal departments’ definition of homeless,” Wade said.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education considers youth living with extended family or friends as homeless, while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not.

In 2009, the Indiana Department of Education found about 8,000 children or youth in state public schools were identified as homeless in the state of Indiana, Wade said.

The Monroe County Community School Corporation was able to identify about a dozen high-school-aged youth considered homeless.

However, Wade said the real number of homeless youth is probably much higher.

“Sometimes kids don’t realize that they’re homeless,” he said. “So while they have a number, we can infer that there are probably quite a bit more, especially since a lot of times homeless youth aren’t even enrolled in school.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey, about 21 percent of people under age 18 in Monroe County are living in poverty. While poverty is often an indicator of homelessness, it can be difficult to get an accurate picture of the number of homeless people in the community, particularly youth.

“At this time, the expansion of the definition of homeless to include those living in motels or other relative’s homes allows us to capture a more realistic picture of what ‘homeless’ is,” Meyer said in an e-mail. “Definitions of terms are so tricky, as they ultimately can lead to excluding persons in true need, even if not intentional.”

Youth Services Bureau of Monroe County operates an emergency youth shelter for children aged 8 to 17. The Binkley House Youth Shelter can house youth for short periods of time while offering counseling and support to families.

Another part of the bill designates more federal funds to aid agencies in supporting those who fall under the expanded definition of homeless.

“The bill is still in the appropriation stage, but if it’s passed, about $400 million more will be authorized for homeless intervention and prevention,” Wade said. “Some of that will come to the state of Indiana.”


August 2, 2010

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