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Dane County moves to aid area's 'hidden homeless,' often families with children

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Homeless boy

Dane County's schools are able to track students who are among the "invisible homeless" whose families live doubled up with family or friends or self-pay in motels. The county is creating a new position to advocate for and serve this population, which isn't eligible for most federal resources. 

They are among the least visible of an already largely unseen population in Dane County: individuals, and often families, who have no place of their own to stay so they double up with friends or relatives, or pay to stay in motels because they can’t get an apartment.

Unknown and uncounted, these “hidden homeless” typically don’t qualify for much of the aid available to other homeless people from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets national policy and administers programs to address housing needs, advocates say.

Those doubled up or paying to stay in motels also can’t get on a housing priority list maintained by the Dane County Homeless Services Consortium that’s based on need. Yet, their presence in another renter’s home typically violates the host’s lease and jeopardizes the host’s own housing if they are found out. And using their own money to pay for a motel because they can’t come up with a security deposit or have a history of evictions that prevents them from getting an apartment can drain precious resources, advocates say.

“They’re stuck,” said Catherine Reierson, who coordinates services for homeless families and students in the Sun Prairie School District. “They don’t qualify for rental assistance or eviction prevention because they’re not on the lease, and they don’t qualify for housing programs because they’re not living on the street or in a shelter.”

To try to address the problem, the Dane County Board has tapped federal funds to hire a person to advocate and secure money for those who are doubled up or paying to stay in motels, in what’s believed to be one of the first positions of its kind in the United States.

The move is especially important amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty about when limits on evictions will be lifted, advocates said.

“We need a way to meet people’s needs before the crisis point,” said Sup. Michele Doolan, 28th District, lead sponsor of the resolution to create the position. “In order to change this, we need a shift in how we do things. We can use much of what’s already in place. What was needed was someone who will be looking at it from a different perspective.”

Few good choices

Families double up for many reasons, advocates say. They can’t find affordable or appropriate-sized housing. They are fleeing domestic violence. They’re unable to pay move-in costs or don’t have a way to get to other shelter. Sometimes, they don’t qualify for shelter because they’re not living outside or in a car, or they don’t want to bring children to a shelter.

Of the 1,672 students experiencing homelessness in Dane County during the 2018-19 school year, 1,243, or 74%, were doubled up, while an additional 189, or 11%, were in families that were paying to stay in motels. The numbers don’t include adults, very young children or young parents under 18, who usually drop out of school.

That year, the county counted at least 84 unaccompanied youths, usually couch surfers too young for the men’s or women’s shelters.

Moving from home to home, members of this group often must make difficult or dangerous choices to keep a roof over their their children’s heads, spending what little they have, jeopardizing their safety and, in some cases, exchanging sex for shelter, say members of a Homeless Services Consortium work group that has been studying the doubled-up population.

“Our doubled-up homeless community faces similar, or perhaps even greater, risks than those living on the streets or in shelters,” said Jani Koester, who helps coordinate services for homeless families and students in the Madison School District.

Other daily challenges include access to phones, WiFi and transportation; needing to be out of a place during the day and back at a certain time; sleeping on the floor, often with clothes as pillows; and the loss of pets, Koester said. Some may also be paying to store their belongings in a locker.

Meanwhile, hosts often give up their own limited space and privacy to accommodate extra tenants in apartments meant for fewer people, advocates say.

Doubled-up households are in a permanent state of stress, with the guests constantly worried about how long they can stay and hosts living in fear that their landlords will find out and evict everyone, members of the homeless consortium work group said. Often, their plans change on a daily or weekly basis, leaving families in perpetual crisis.

Compounding the problem, local homeless programs don’t seek out or account for these individuals because HUD doesn’t prioritize them, Koester said. They are not included in HUD’s annual Point In Time Count, a count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January, she said.

“That barrier perpetuates their homelessness, a devastating situation for adults and children alike,” said Diane Nilan, president of Hear Us, Inc., an organization based in Naperville, Illinois, that produces films and books to call attention to the issue.

Nilan, who recently spent nearly a month in Madison to make a video on those who are doubled up, found little awareness and few resources directed to this invisible homeless population. “The safety net is alarmingly limited, thus families fall into the vortex of homelessness,” she said.

“We have long understood that the most commonly used definitions of homelessness and those that drive much of the federal funds to address homelessness don’t capture the full range of people in our community who are housing insecure,” city community development director Jim O’Keefe said. “It underscores the need to continue, and accelerate, our efforts to expand the supply of affordable housing choices in Madison.”

Trying not to be noticed

It’s especially hard to connect with and help this population, advocates said.

“This population is invisible and very good at staying that way, sneaking in and out, doing their best to not be noticed and not be in the way,” Reierson said. “The more rural the population, the more they tend to blend in.”

Dane County’s Joining Forces for Families program has social workers embedded in some of Madison’s poorest neighborhoods and in communities throughout the county to advocate, resolve problems and connect people to resources, including help getting housing, food, a job, a bus pass or a backpack for a child. But JFF isn’t a housing program and lacks the capacity to support doubled-up families given their immense challenges and needs, work group members said.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which is intended to provide homeless students the same educational opportunities as other students, acknowledges that living doubled up is a a barrier to academic success and can place a child’s safety at risk.

But the focus is on access to education, with staff often trying to provide students basic resources and keeping them in the same school; it’s not a housing program.

“If they are not connected to a school, there is no system that follows them, and they go back to being invisible in a new neighborhood,” Koester said.

When those doubled up start applying for apartments, they are often denied due to an unverifiable housing history, and there are few resources to help them come up with a security deposit or to advocate for them with landlords, advocates said. The barriers are compounded when the head of the household has a disability, limited English proficiency or is caring for another household member with special needs. Paying for motels can provide a temporary refuge, but it also drains savings that could go toward security deposits, a first month’s rent or other needs, they said.

Giving voice and more

To combat the problem, the county is trying something new.

Last month, Doolan and seven others sponsored a resolution to amend the budget to deliver $27,300 for a position to address these unique needs starting Oct. 1, with full-year funding expected for 2022 and 2023. It was unanimously approved (with two not voting) and signed by County Executive Joe Parisi on July 26.

Creating the position “is a brilliant move,” Nilan said.

Among other things, the position will:

  • Examine current systems, policies and procedures that adversely impact the doubled-up population
  • Identify opportunities, barriers and gaps that exist on a city- and county-wide level
  • Review the capacity of current programs to address the problem and explore new funding streams
  • Compile and analyze data on the scope of need
  • Work with other agencies to provide services to this population.

“If we don’t find solutions for people experiencing this type of homelessness, there will be no end to homelessness in our community,” Doolan said.


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