'Homeless' is difficult to define 


Congress’ debate over definition sheds light on the complexity of allocating government services

The term “homeless” is often equated with panhandlers carrying cardboard signs with messages ranging from God’s blessings to confessions like, “Not gonna lie, need a drink.” This segment of the homeless population is certainly the most visible, which may limit one’s perception of what it means to be homeless.

But the definition of homeless is much more complex than whether or not the person in question appears disheveled or requests your spare change.

An article in the Sept. 15 issue of the New York Times, “Capitol Strives to Define ‘Homeless,” discusses the debate taking place in Congress over this definition. The article states that current federal housing law considers only those who literally have no home of their own to be homeless. Those who are living on the streets or in shelters are classified as homeless, while those living in unstable conditions such as with relatives or in motels are not.

Because of the current economic crisis many families are facing, Congress is deliberating over whether to change the definition of “homeless” in order to extend government services to more deserving individuals.

Various versions of the proposal are being discussed. The first, which would consider unstable housing to be a form of homelessness, would extend government services to as many as one million more people. A second and smaller proposal would only include those who are living in unstable housing due to domestic violence or people who are preparing to lose their homes within two weeks. A third proposal would include people who have lost their home either three times within the past year or two times in the past three weeks.

The differences between the proposals suggest that people can become homeless in different ways and for different reasons, which often transcend laziness or a desire to live off of “the system.” The National Coalition for the Homeless identifies four primary causes: inability to pay rent (often due to minimum wage jobs, which do not compensate employees with enough money to support themselves), mental illness, domestic violence and unaffordable health care.

Two particular groups of people become homeless for reasons they can’t control: victims of domestic violence and veterans.

Domestic violence particularly affects women and children. In a 2005 study, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 50 percent of cities across the country identified domestic violence as the primary cause of homelessness for women and children.

Many women, especially those who do not have an education or work experience, have few means of supporting themselves or their children if they choose to flee a domestically abusive environment. The consequences are two-fold.

First, the women who flee domestic abuse are often forced into homelessness. Also, other women who realize this might be pressured to remain in abusive environments for fear of becoming homeless.

Veterans represent another group that is disproportionately homeless. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans approximates that around a quarter of the homeless population are veterans, citing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as one of the primary causes. The U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 40 percent of homeless men were veterans.

Because of the nature of homelessness, statistics that are completely accurate are nearly impossible; many numbers are estimations. However, it is clear that many people are homeless because of factors beyond their control. Women who survive domestic abuse are often forced to live on the streets. Veterans who have served our country are rewarded by an appalling lack of government services; essentially, some have given up their sanity for a country that will do little to help them.

Here’s another interesting finding of the U.S. Conference of Mayors: Las Vegas is ranked as the fifth “meanest city” in terms of homeless legislation, meaning we are a city characterized by too few homeless support services and too many homeless criminalization laws.

In light of this, one might wonder what feasible options we have to help homeless people. The New York Times article explains that though extending services to more people would be ideal, there is an abysmal lack of funding to do so. There isn’t even enough funding to help the people who are already classified as homeless. Therefore, more funding is the first step.

More funding doesn’t necessarily mean higher taxes for everyone. Various members of the House of Representatives have criticized the Bush administration for the ways that it has prioritized spending, namely tax cuts for businesses and the war in Iraq. If the resources we already had were better allocated, more funding would be available to get people back on their feet.

It is unrealistic to believe that funding can be quickly reprioritized for the sake of altruism, but it’s time to start thinking about what we collectively find important as Americans.

Personally, I don’t want to live in a society that spends so much money sending people to war that it cannot afford to aid the people who have already served our country. Nor do I want to live in a country where women and children are compelled to remain in abusive situations because they have no other options.

Sadly, this is the case. The importance of government services is often trivialized by arguments that homeless people are just too lazy. Though in some cases this might be a factor, it often isn’t. However, this idea is comforting because it allows people to believe that as long as they aren’t lazy, homelessness is an impossibility.

But reality isn’t always comfortable and homelessness is much more complicated than the magnitude of one’s work ethic.