Homeless but hidden, some American families are being disqualified for critical help

In order not to stay in a homeless shelter, Kristie Filippello and her three children have been sleeping on the floor of a family member’s one-room apartment for almost two months.

Filippello, 32, left her home after the pandemic collapsed her cleaning business and the financial stress of unpaid bills led to abuse from her two-year boyfriend who she lived with.

With nowhere to go, she and her children, 6, 8 and 11, spent two months in a homeless shelter in Florida before moving to Cincinnati to stay with relatives after receiving relocation money in October from a domestic violence compensation fund.

“The coronavirus was spreading, so staying in a shelter was not good, and I have daughters and a shelter is not the right place for a family unless it’s an absolute last resort,” said Filippello, who added that she goes to a motel with all the money she has before she returns to a shelter.

She has tried to participate in a government relocation program but is not eligible because she lives in a home with a relative, even though the arrangement is unsustainable and she has part of the living room screened off with a sheet divider for her children’s privacy and distance education.

Trying to avoid a homeless shelter, Kristie Filipello and her children have been living in a one-bedroom apartment with another family for nearly two months.Kristie Filippello

“When it comes to seeking help, they don’t consider me homeless because I’m not literally on the street and in someone’s house,” she said. “I feel like I need just as much now, but very few doors are open to me.”

Homelessness is set to rise in the coming weeks and months as Americans face ongoing economic turbulence and a pandemic-inspired deportation moratorium ends later this month. But essential housing assistance may not be fully available to families who don’t fit the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “ homeless, ” including those who, like Filippello, have had to double with other households.

Doubling is when a person or family temporarily lives with another household or shifts between houses indefinitely, often because of economic need. People who are doubly seated are not considered homeless by the HUD and are not assigned certain assistance, such as prompt relocation, housing experts said.

HUD generally defines “homeless” as individuals and families who do not have “fixed night quarters,” including those living in shelters or on the street. Those who double sit or bounce between motels are not covered by this umbrella.

While this exclusion has led to hardships long before the pandemic, growing health problems and dwindling shelters have accelerated efforts to increase housing support to address the doubled population, which is expected to increase in the coming year.

“With the expiry of the CARES Act moratorium and the expiry of unemployment benefits, we know that families are already making difficult choices. Even with the CDC deportation moratorium in place, landlords are already filing evictions and using threats to get people to leave, ”said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When you have to choose between paying the rent and food, people choose to stop paying rent and move in with friends and family, even if it’s not where they wanted them to be.”

Plus, reconciling families is risky during the pandemic, he said.

Becoming double is an “extremely temporary situation” meant for a short period of time, in part because the individual or family has no legal right to the space and may be asked to leave at any time, he said.

But the fix isn’t always as simple as going to a shelter, Tars added. Shelters across the country have a reduced capacity to maintain social distance, leaving fewer options for people who need a place to stay.

Even before the pandemic, many families did not attend shelters due to security concerns and because some facilities are segregated by gender, meaning families are split up. Now the risk of exposure to the virus is also a drawback. Still, some families are forced to take those risks in order to qualify for homeless help, Tars said.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, spent nearly $ 4 billion in helping people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless as a result of Covid-19. But that amount is a fraction of what it takes to address pandemic-induced homelessness, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policies for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And because the funds provided are not sufficient to help everyone who needs and qualifies for assistance, it is up to local and government officials to decide how much to use for those who are homeless and how much for those at risk of homelessness. said.

“Federal law allows dollars to be used on people who are doubled if their income is low enough or they are in a dangerous or unstable situation. But it’s up to the local or national government how to prioritize their very limited funding, ”Berg said.

Most jurisdictions apply CARES Act funding following the same guidelines set by the HUD, meaning they use the money to accommodate people who are in shelters or at risk of homelessness, not the population doubled, Barbara Duffield said. executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit organization dedicated to overcoming homelessness through education.

In a statement to NBC News, HUD said that “children and youth and families with children and youth who meet the Department of Education’s definition of homelessness or other federal agency who do not meet the HUD’s definition of homelessness are eligible. for help in preventing homelessness under the HUDs. Emergency Solutions Grants Program. “

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The agency said that “homelessness prevention has the same activities as rapid resettlement, including rental assistance and housing stabilization services. In addition, the CARES Act has provided $ 4 billion to the ESG program, and people who are doubled and considered homeless by other federal authorities. agencies are also eligible for homelessness prevention under that CARES Act funding. ”

But Duffield said preventing homelessness is usually the last priority for jurisdictions when it comes to HUD dollars.

Local advocates of housing were excited about the CARES Act’s funding because they wanted to be able to do certain things with it, but their state is now essentially saying, ‘We’re going to follow the federal housing definition,’ so that’s a problem for people out there. , “Duffield said.” Those who have doubled are not really a priority for some of the prevention efforts, as they are not expected to be at risk or at great risk. “

Those who are homeless can apply for special housing resources that get them into the housing system, be it short term or long term, she said. But people who are doubles don’t have access to those options, she said. While there are other ways and funding that double families qualify for under HUD, such as homeless prevention grants or if you have an immediate risk of losing housing, those are very small and often require several additional criteria, she said.

“I think people who defend the HUD definition will often say when we get into the definition debate, ‘Well, they have a roof over their heads. It’s OK. They are not at risk. They are not really vulnerable ‘, but that is not true at all. “

Roxann Block and her two children, 9 and 10, shuffle between three different homes in southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky every week because she can’t get into a homeless shelter near public transportation. After the lockdown, she had to quit her job at a fast food restaurant to stay home with her children who had to learn from a distance. She lost her apartment and car in the summer.

Blok, 36, is now putting up a tent in the garage of the houses of several family members and friends.

A tent that Roxann Block set up to stay in a friend’s garage.Credit to Roxann Block

“Even though I have a roof over my head, this is no way for children to live,” said Block, who also couldn’t get housing assistance.

Roxann Block with her children.Credit to Roxann Block

But other housing advocates say that arguing over who is and isn’t eligible for funding for homeless people is a distraction from a bigger problem, which is that housing assistance generally lacks significant funding.

“The real problem is that there are all kinds of people with serious housing problems. And the programs that exist in the federal government to help people with housing programs are just being hugely underfunded. And so does the CARES Act, ”said Berg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, adding that it would cost $ 15 billion to provide housing assistance to match the increase in homelessness caused by the coronavirus.

“HUD has a budget of $ 50 billion a year, the homeless programs are less than $ 3 billion of that,” he said. “I think who gets that $ 3 billion is not the right question to ask, the right question is when $ 50 billion is only a quarter of what it takes to meet the need, why don’t we spend much more than Which? “

Berg adds that when people, including those who are doubles, cannot get help, it is not because of the eligibility requirements for homeless programs, but because there is not enough housing to start with and the problem is only getting worse will be. .

“The number of people who will lose housing at the end of the year if the moratorium on evictions ends is millions, making the current level of homelessness seem like child’s play,” Berg said.

The CDC’s temporary order to stop deportations will expire on Dec. 31.

“I think the whole lack of housing as a basic human need is at the heart of the problem,” he said. “It’s about housing, solid stable housing. The lack of decent stable housing is causing homelessness and a host of other problems, and we need to fix that. “