How the tax code can help people experiencing homelessness
Most people, including lawmakers, don’t think the tax code can help people experiencing homelessness. That’s because when we talk about homelessness, most people think about street homelessness. But street homelessness, a much narrower definition of homelessness, is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are so many varied ways to experience homelessness.
People often fail to understand that there is also the hidden homelessness problem that largely affects children, young people, and families – and they are not necessarily on the streets. In practice, most of the people who we see as experiencing street homelessness are adults. Families, children, and young people are missing from the public eye – that’s because many are living doubled up, couch surfing, or staying in a hotel or motel. If they end up on the streets like other adults, they are likely to come into contact with the foster care or child welfare system.
The data available on homelessness, including hidden homelessness, is a big undercount because there is no one right way of identifying those who are experiencing homelessness – and those people for whom this situation applies may not necessarily identify as such. Nonetheless, some systems like schools use a broader definition that includes hidden homelessness. For the school year 2020-2021, for example, schools counted nearly 1.1 million students experiencing homelessness, most of whom are living doubled-up. And these are just the students themselves – the count doesn’t include their families and other members of their household that are likely experiencing homelessness too.
We hear from advocates and partners on the grounds that many of these families, despite falling into financial hardship and experiencing homelessness, are still working to provide for their children. It is shocking and sad to see how many families are working yet still experiencing homelessness. Families need to be creative in making sure they don’t end up on the streets – or risk coming into contact with police and/or child welfare. Because many of these families are working, they are very much part of the tax code fabric. And this is why our advocacy around the tax code, be it Child Tax Credit or Renter Tax Credits, would benefit them and help prevent and end hidden homelessness for many.
To be limited in our understanding of homelessness would prevent us from building a broad coalition to end homelessness and poverty. We need to educate our members of Congress about the true extent of homelessness – how it goes beyond street homelessness and affects many of those who we care about. So the next time you talk to your member of Congress about tax credits, don’t be afraid to communicate how these tax credits can help solve the affordable housing and homelessness crisis too. Let us not dilute the message we want to send to Congress, by using other terms like “unhoused,” “houseless,” and “housing insecure”* that only confuse lawmakers about the true situation when it comes to the housing needs of children, young people, and families. When we use the right name to label the problem — homelessness — we put ourselves in a better position to educate the public and our lawmakers about the extent of the affordable housing and homelessness crisis in the United States.
*SchoolHouse Connection recently published a blogpost on “Why We Use the Phrase ‘Experiencing Homelessness’”
Cara Baldari, Vice President, Family Economics, Housing and Homelessness at First Focus on Children, Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, and Michael Santos, Associate Director, U.S. Policy at RESULTS and chair-elect of the American Bar Association, Commission on Homelessness & Poverty