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The issues that arise when federal agencies define child homelessness differently

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

According to the federal Department of Education, there are around a million homeless children in the U.S. The Department of Housing and Urban Development counts far fewer. That's because the agencies have different definitions of what makes a child homeless. And as Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting explains, that has real consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

JUNE O'NEAL: Ms. Gibson.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: It's mid-morning on a weekday when there's a rap on Keisha Gibson's motel room door.

O'NEAL: Hey, babies. Yeah, I figured y'all were sleeping spreaded (ph) out on the floor, so.

BLANKENSHIP: That's June O'Neal, longtime advocate for educating at-risk youth in Macon.

O'NEAL: I figured that you needed some linens up here, and I got some food in the car for you too.

KEISHA GIBSON: OK.

BLANKENSHIP: Gibson is living in this one room with her seven children.

GIBSON: I got evicted from my house because I wasn't able to go back and forth to work.

BLANKENSHIP: Now, Gibson works at a fast food restaurant she can walk to. That's how she affords this motel room for $900 a month.

GIBSON: It's OK, but it's, like - it's just all of us in one space.

BLANKENSHIP: There's a technical term for how Gibson and her kids are living.

DANIELLE JONES: Doubled up.

BLANKENSHIP: That's Danielle Jones. She works with homeless students for the Bibb County School District.

JONES: So you might have three sisters living in a three bedroom and each have four or five kids each.

BLANKENSHIP: Or like Gibson, have too many people in too little space, which can be stressful. Jones says under the McKinney-Vento Act, the federal law that regulates education for the homeless, doubled up is just one of the definitions of a homeless student.

JONES: It's anyone that lacks a fixed, adequate or permanent nighttime resources. So those are kids that are living in hotels, motels, shelters, campgrounds...

BLANKENSHIP: Doubled up in a motel, Gibson's kids hit the definition twice. According to federal data, being homeless slashes their odds of graduating high school by some 30 percentage points compared to the national average. They're also less likely to graduate than students who also struggle financially, but who have a stable address. And so that's why McKinney-Vento requires public school districts across the country to offer special support.

JONES: School supplies, uniforms.

BLANKENSHIP: There's tutoring and special transportation, all aimed at keeping kids enrolled in the same school even as they move from place to place. But McKinney-Vento does not allow schools to help students with arguably their most basic need - housing. That falls to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development - HUD - and their Rapid Rehousing program. It provides rent for up to six months. But remember Danielle Jones at Bibb schools and her definition of a homeless child?

JONES: People that are doubled up.

BLANKENSHIP: That's not homeless to HUD. Carlton Williams oversees HUD's rapid rehousing in Macon. He says HUD has its own definition.

CARLTON WILLIAMS: Meaning you're literally homeless with no roof over your head or you're running from domestic violence.

BLANKENSHIP: So right now, Keisha Gibson, living in a motel, isn't homeless according to HUD, and so neither are her kids. In the past, she was and did qualify for housing aid from HUD. When she was evicted last year, she applied again but was turned away despite her kids' needs. These are reasons only a tiny fraction of the kids Danielle Jones with Bibb schools knows are homeless receive housing support. And nationally, while HUD says there are about 81,000 homeless children, the Department of Education counts over a million. Barbara Duffield is executive director of Schoolhouse Connection, a D.C.-based nonprofit aimed at educating homeless youth.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: Any homelessness policy that's based only on adults and not taking into consideration how children experience homelessness and the harm it does is ultimately failing the entire family.

BLANKENSHIP: So Duffield would like to change the policy and align HUD's definition with the Department of Education's. Last year, two bills in Congress would have done that. Despite bipartisan sponsorship, neither version of the Homeless Children and Youth Act got out of committee. Meanwhile, some homeless advocates outside of education say that adding hundreds of thousands of people to HUD's rolls without more funding may not accomplish much.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF VITAMIN STRING QUARTET'S "THANK U, NEXT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.