Not on the List: How HUD Homeless Policy Leaves Children Behind

Written by By Jani Koester, President of the DaneCounty WI Homeless Services Consortium Board of Directors, Resource Teacher with Madison Metropolitan School District’s Transition Education Program

Teyah loves to dance and sing. 

She is often found in the hallways of the motel, dancing down the hall and singing into a spoon. Someday, she hopes to perform on Broadway.  As she twirls down the hall, other residents peek out of their doors shushing and telling her to stop making such a racket. Teyah is six, and it is hard for her to contain all her creative energy to the small motel room with her three brothers, baby sister, Mom and Mom’s boyfriend. Seven in a room meant for two. It has been this way now for almost two months.

Before this motel, they were at Grandma Tallie’s apartment in the Senior Living Building, but they made too much noise (especially the 2-year-old twin boys) and had to go before Grandma got kicked out.

Before Grandma, they were at cousin ZeZe’s house, but she wanted a lot of money, all the food stamps, and use of the family’s broken down car all the time. If ZeZe got the car, they stayed; if she couldn’t use the car, they couldn’t stay. This meant Mom’s boyfriend often missed work, or took the bus and walked a mile to get to his temporary work site. He didn’t earn a lot of money, but it was enough to scrape by.

Before Cousin ZeZe, they stayed at the family shelter, mattresses crowded in corners on the floor (big thick ones that now sag in the middle), but together as a family. They couldn’t enter before 4:00 pm and had to leave by 7:30 am every morning. They had nowhere to store their belongings or keep all the diapers and formula. Everything came and went on the baby’s stroller. They stayed at the shelter for about six weeks when they could get in; They’d call between 11:00 and 12:00, and someone from coordinated intake would call them back if there was room. On the days there was no room, they paid for a motel room or stayed in their car. It all depended on if they had money. They were asked about diversion, but since they had nowhere to stay, they were not provided with anything to get through the night but a list of free meal sites.

Before the family shelter, Teyah’s family was well-established in their neighborhood.  Both adults were working, and Teyah and her younger brother were doing well in school. Mom’s job let her go when she had the baby, but they thought they could make it with just the one income. Then her boyfriend was let go because he missed a night of work to help deliver his new daughter. Teyah lost her home, community, all her special things, photos, friends, and sense of belonging. She loves school, but it hasn’t been enough to help her feel like the world has not dropped out from under her.

Teyah’s family moved onto the priority housing placement list while they were in a shelter.  They were happy to know that while they were in a shelter, they had a housing case manager who was working with them to find a place to live. Once they moved from shelter to Cousin ZeZe’s, they still had contact with their case manager, because there were multiple times they were also staying in their car, when they were not allowed to stay at ZeZe’s house.

When they finally left ZeZe’s for Grandma Tallie’s, they were told the case manager couldn’t work with them because this was more stable, and they were helping with food and household chores. They had “doubled up,” and HUD no longer considered them homeless.

Because Mom’s boyfriend still had temp work, they started staying at the cheap motel. Paint is peeling, there’s black mold in the bathroom, and the room has one queen-sized bed. There is a microwave in the front lobby that works most of the time, with a small refrigerator shared by everyone in the motel, so often things go missing from it. All the kids are expected to stay in their rooms and not play in the parking lot or hallways.  However, it is affordable, for now.

Mom went to coordinated intake to check on the status of their name on the priority list and found out that they had been removed from the list because they are no longer staying at the shelter or in their car. It was a long night for the family because they had been in the top 20 and thought that by now they would be connecting with housing. No one told them their name had come off the list. No one helped them look for other resources.

They ended up at Teyah’s school talking to the school McKinney-Vento Point of Contact, who helped them navigate the housing system and find someone to talk to them about landlords. They have multiple barriers that they had started working on, but now that they are paying for a motel room, there are no resources to help them address those barriers. Mom’s boyfriend suggested they move back to the car. But the weather is changing, and they don’t have enough gas to keep them warm, and with a colicky baby they just don’t want to put her out in the cold. They don’t want to put anyone out in the cold.

They feel stuck and defeated.

At one point, they had so much hope, and now they have none. They are raising children in conditions they cannot get out of, and the only place helping them is school, which helps with food, clothes, supplies and resources. Every week, they gather housing availability lists, even though they know any money they spend on application fees would be wasted, because they have barriers in the way (an old eviction, not enough income to pay the deposit and first and last months’ rent, an unpaid utility bill, and an ER visit when the baby was really sick). They have outstayed their welcome at relatives’ homes, can’t go back to shelter for a while, and know that at any moment Mom’s boyfriend’s temp job could end. They have moved on and off support lists, been near the top of the priority list and then removed without any knowledge.  Our own system of support provides hope and then dumps despair on top of it.

We let families know when they are “homeless” enough and when they are not “homeless” enough. Even our own two systems (HUD and schools) struggle with each other – trying to decide what to say and when to say it. Refer when they are in the shelter, since they won’t be served when they are doubled-up knowing they will soon be in their car. There is paperwork to put them on this list, paper work to take them off, they complete a SPDAT (Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool), update the SPDAT, offer housing when they make it to the top, only to take away the housing when they find the family is at Grandma’s and not in their car.

Our families constantly cycle through many different types of homelessness. The fact is they are homeless no matter how they are experiencing it. To limit supports and then offer supports and then take them away is a cycle of oppression that our families and their children cannot afford to pass through over and over. At some point, they just start to accept being homeless with children. Isn’t that what we are working so hard to eliminate?

Even though many of our families are evicted, thrown out and lose all their household goods, they end up staying with others, thinking that at least these situations will provide a roof and possibly some stability and consistency in the lives of their children. Until they don’t. The doubled up situation often leads to trading sex for a place to stay, breaking down long friendships and family connections. Making choices to stay out of shelter often leads to making choices that break the spirit and burn the heart.

Parents want their children to be safe.

They hear about stories of the shelter, predators, mattresses on the floor, bed bugs, rules about discipline and hours of quiet that they sometimes cannot control. (A crying baby cries when it wants.) They choose not to go only to find that it really isn’t any different when you stay at someone else’s house. Staying with someone else, even a friend or family member, provides a roof, but always at a cost—whether personal, financial, relationship, or one’s pride. Wherever a family sleeps, their stories often are the same: eviction, loss of community, loss of connections, loss of job, loss of life as it was to a life of constant seeking. They seek resources, health, places to stay, gas for the car, food for the evening, clothes for the weather, and transportation to get to school, sharing their story over and over in front of children who are too young to completely understand, but know that their mommy is telling that sad story again. The worst consequence is the loss of hope and confidence in themselves, in a system, in life.

Other Examples:

  1. Going into a motel to help a family and finding a second family living with them in the motel room. This mother had stage 4 breast cancer and did not seek treatment, because she never knew where she or her children would be.
  2. An 18-year old student who had aged out of foster care and is now couch-surfing. She came home on her 18th birthday to all her possessions packed and on the front step. With 4 months of high school left until graduation, she stayed in 12 different places for a total of 15 moves while trying to finish high school. She was not considered homeless by HUD because she had a roof over her head, and the adult single women shelter was not an appropriate place for her to go to. She has anxiety, and the shelter was a trigger for her. Through it all, she graduated, but she is currently on the streets with no support or help. Last we heard, she was connected to a human trafficking ring.
  3. We went for a home visit for a student who had missed school a few days in a row. The family was staying in the corner of the small front room. In fact, each corner was space for a different family, with four families living in that one small room. The family had been considered housed, because they said they were paying rent. It was obvious that the living conditions were not adequate, and they received McKinney Vento school services. The family was fearful of the shelter because of their immigration status and limited English language skills.