U.S. SENATE – U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-MN) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) sent a letter to Secretary Marcia Fudge urging the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help address homelessness in Native and rural communities and to provide clarity on the federal definition of homelessness. The Senators are the Chair and Ranking Member, respectively, of the Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development. The letter follows a bipartisan hearing led by Smith and Lummis on the “State of Native American Housing” where witnesses described the severe homelessness and overcrowding issues facing rural and Native American communities.
“The stories we heard at our hearing are not isolated examples. Many Native and rural communities officially report low rates of sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, but have high rates of doubling up and overcrowding,” wrote the Senators. “Doubling up and overcrowding are likely more prevalent in rural communities that have fewer emergency shelter options and limited transportation options, so people struggle to get to the shelters that do exist. Studies confirm that some of the highest rates of overcrowding are experienced by people who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native and on tribal lands. Although these situations differ from the ways homelessness is often found in non-Native and non-rural communities, we believe they warrant close attention.”
Witness testimony described how some individuals are living in “fish houses” or “ice shanties,” in the face of not being able to find a safe, secure and affordable place to live. Witnesses shared that Native families are far more likely to face overcrowding—even though living doubled-up is not the preference of the vast majority of Native individuals—because community members have long-held cultural values around taking in community members with no place to live. This can lead to severe overcrowding, with as many as 16 people living in a two bedroom residence. These individuals likely do not meet the federal definition of homelessness, and therefore are not included in a priority category for federal homeless assistance programs.
The Senators acknowledged the challenges with accurately capturing everyone who is experiencing homelessness and that it is essential to effectively utilize limited federal resources, given that our homeless services systems do not have the resources to reach all of those in need. Recent studies have found that people experiencing homelessness have a death rate three times higher in Minnesota than the general population. The Senators seek to understand the range of housing insecurity Native people and rural communities experience in order to determine how best to respond to these issues.
Given the housing and overcrowding challenges facing Native communities, the Senators asked for answers to the following questions:
- Although these situations differ from the ways homelessness is often found in non-Native and non-rural communities, we believe they warrant close attention. Given these circumstances, we have the following questions:
- What guidance has HUD provided regarding the category of homelessness related to places that are “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings,” that could capture the unique presentation of homelessness in Native and rural communities?
- Does HUD provide additional, targeted guidance for service providers in Native and rural communities regarding PIT counts?
- What guidance does HUD provide regarding overcrowded and substandard housing and places “not designed for or ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodation for human beings,” related to the PIT count process?
- Has HUD considered using measures of overcrowding to supplement the annual PIT counts?
- Are there circumstances under current HUD policy where a house could be so severely overcrowded that individuals residing there could be considered homeless, under category 1 of the federal definition?
- Are there circumstances under current HUD policy where a house could be so substandard that individuals residing there could be considered homeless, under category 1 of the federal definition? In these circumstances, does HUD require that the house be condemned by local authorities in order for the individual to be counted as homeless?
- For the purposes of the PIT count, how does HUD define or provide guidance for determining what constitutes as an “abandoned building?”
- Would an individual living in a “fish house” or “ice shanty” meet the definition as “(2) an individual or family with a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground?”
- Does HUD believe that the unique circumstances and experiences of Native people and people living in rural areas are captured under the current definition? If yes, please describe and if not, what steps is HUD taking to make sure that their needs are adequately addressed, either through updates to the definition or other mechanisms?
You can read a full version of the letter here.