Failing Mia and Kiley: The Family Homeless Assistance System is Broken

By Mary Ellen Mitchell, Co-Director, Lydia’s House, Cincinnati, OH

On the early afternoon of August 21, 2018, we received a call to our intake line. St. Vincent de Paul asked us to provide housing for a young woman, Mia, and her three-year-old daughter, Kiley. We were told that Mia had been living in her car with Kiley for over a month. Our intake specialist conducted a phone interview, and we asked the representative from St. Vincent de Paul to coordinate with the workers for PATH, the local outreach program, to get Mia “certified” as homeless. Although we do not require families to be certified as meeting HUD’s definition of homelessness to be accepted into our program, we do try to get families certified because, in our community, a homeless certification can mean access to expedited Housing Choice Vouchers, expedited public housing, a variety of housing subsidies and supports, case management and expedited child care vouchers. Without the certification, we risked leaving Mia with fewer long-term housing options and fewer short-term child care options.

Tamara, the worker at St. Vincent de Paul, called us back about 30 minutes later to report that the PATH outreach team was not offering homeless certification visits that day, but that Mia could get a homeless certification by going to the Homeless Coalition office if she could arrive there by 4 p.m. Tamara provided Mia with quarters for parking and sent her to the Homeless Coalition. Because Mia arrived shortly after 4 p.m., she was unable to meet with a PATH team worker who had an office at the Homeless Coalition.

Prior to this point, Mia had made every effort to obtain shelter for herself and her daughter. She called the Central Access Point hotline on several occasions, and was told that the shelters were full. No services were offered to her; she was simply told to call back. She had tried to get to the Homeless Coalition so that someone could inspect her car between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. She connected to her local St. Vincent de Paul and asked for direct services. All of these efforts failed.

While a HUD Continuum of Care (CoC) affiliated shelter could have offered a homeless certificate to Mia before moving her into a temporary motel, we could not because (according to our CoC) we are not considered an emergency shelter due to our average stay being longer than 30 days. Therefore, our program was faced with the decision of whether or not to offer immediate assistance to get Mia and her daughter out of her car and into a motel, knowing that, if we did, we would be preventing Mia and her daughter from receiving long-term assistance.

We knew that the temperature overnight was mild, and that Mia and Kiley had lived in the car already for over a month, so we made the extremely difficult decision to ask her to stay in the car until a PATH team worker could observe her car and issue this certification, presumably the next day during business hours, hopefully at 9 a.m. We arranged to meet Mia at the Homeless Coalition the next day at 9 a.m., but when Mia and our staff member, Laura, arrived, they were informed by a handwritten note that no PATH team workers would be in until 1 p.m. – another fail at homeless certification.

This series of options and the processes implicit in them are inhumane. Mia should not have to decide to live in her car with her child. We should not have to decide to delay immediate assistance in order for Mia and her child to qualify for long-term assistance. We should not have to call and revisit multiple times in order to find a worker to certify an emergency housing situation, especially one that puts a three-year-old child at risk.

Women with children, especially, stay hidden in fear of losing custody of their children. As a result, we will never see them camping in tents on 4th street or in downtown parks.

With great encouragement and support, these women may attempt to find a certified outreach worker; hopefully they are able to do so between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., or 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. depending on the day, and can afford a parking meter. Hopefully they have a car to stay in, so it can be inspected. If families do not have a car – and many do not – they are even less likely to be considered homeless, because they are more likely to stay on other people’s couches or in motels, often forced into risky behavior simply to survive, yet falling short of HUD’s definition of homelessness.

Mia’s situation is a particularly grievous one, yet it is representative of situations that we see daily. Family homelessness is a crisis of tragic proportions in our region. Outreach workers, who focus on targeting youth, veterans, street homelessness, and mental illness, are less equipped to respond to the needs of mothers who are trying desperately to maintain custody of their children, typically by staying hidden. The policies that allow a small group of people to obtain assistance through rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing — both HUD homeless programs — also exclude many homeless families, namely those who fail to meet the HUD category 1 homeless definition (on the streets or in official shelters), or those like Mia who do meet HUD category 1, but can’t access a HUD funded street outreach worker. Most importantly, families who don’t meet HUD’s definition or who cannot get certified never get counted toward telling the real story of family homelessness in our region and nation.

After approximately 12 hours of intervention work by two of our Lydia’s House staff members and four attempts at homeless certification, Mia was certified as homeless on the evening of August 22. We insisted that Mia be assessed using our community’s vulnerability assessment. Mia’s vulnerability score was very high – high enough that she would have qualified for permanent supportive housing. (She would have scored this high if she were staying in her car, on someone’s couch, or in a motel; her vulnerability score was not specifically related to where she slept, but rather other challenges including mental health.) We moved Mia and Kiley into Lydia’s House shortly after, where they are currently living.

In the end, our program was able to help Mia and Kiley but I write this essay to highlight a process that is failing families. I write as a witness to Mia and Kiley, and the many women and children like them, who do not have the capacity at this point in their lives to advocate for themselves on a systemic level. We need reform that is based on the unique needs and dynamics of families with children, that recognizes that vulnerability is not based on where a family happens to find a place to sleep the night before, and that makes it easier,not harder, for families to be assessed for services.

Editor’s Note

The Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA, H.R. 1511/S. 611) would help address barriers that families like Mia and Kiley face in accessing HUD homeless assistance services. Learn more and take action to support HYCA.

Take Action to Advance the Homeless Children and Youth Act!

  1. Urge your U.S. Representative and U.S. Senators to co-sponsor the legislation.
    • A list of current House co-sponsors may be found here, and a list of current Senate co-sponsors may be found here.
    • Sample letters may be found here.
  2. Add your organization’s name to the list of HCYA supporters here.