Seeing the Invisible

woman in car

March 4, 2022

As part of our ongoing conversation on homelessness, we asked members of the Family Promise network and individuals working to serve families experiencing homelessness to share their personal thoughts and reflections on Family Promise and the issue of family homelessness. In this article, Family Promise CEO Claas Ehler’s explains how the flawed way homelessness is counted (and subsequently addressed) in this country affects countless families.

The day her husband announced he wanted a divorce, Kenyal began a chapter in her life story that she never imagined having to write: that of a single mother with nowhere to tuck her children into bed at night. Without the means to support herself and her three young boys, all under the age of five, she moved in with her sister.  

Her sister lived in subsidized housing. It was tight quarters for five people – not enough beds, one bathroom, no privacy. But worse than that, Kenyal and her boys were putting her sister’s livelihood at risk. Subsidized housing comes with strict tenancy rules, and Kenyal and the boys put her sister in violation of the lease. If they were discovered, she could lose her home. The family kept a low profile as Kenyal desperately searched for alternatives.  

Kenyal had a roof over her head but no control over where she was living. Was she homeless? She wasn’t on the streets, sleeping on a park bench, panhandling at an intersection. She didn’t look homeless. Her housing instability was invisible.  

To most people, homelessness is encampments, mental illness, and substance abuse. It is not a family whose children are racing around the playground, a dad fueling up the family car at a service station, or a mom working as a teacher’s aide in the local elementary school.  

This invisibility is a problem. Because how we address homelessness is determined by how we see the crisis. 

We count people as homeless according to definitions that are relevant to the chronically homeless single population, the people we often see on the streets. We prioritize solutions based on their needs and allocate resources and set policy with that population in mind.  

There is nothing wrong with doing everything we can to end homelessness for the people we see suffering. (Of course, we have failed miserably at even that simple proposition: even HUD acknowledges that homelessness is on the rise in this country.) But it is wrong to pretend that Kenyal and her boys were not homeless and therefore ineligible for assistance based on an inadequate definition that shapes how we address the issue. 

Narrowly defining the crisis of homelessness solely by what is visible means we, as a society, end up fighting smaller battles without making noticeable progress toward a solution, without winning the war. This influences public perception of the crisis and also presents a false picture of the actual landscape. 

Specifically, the government conducts an annual count of people experiencing homelessness. This is done on a local level across the country, with volunteers led by the continuum of care—the agencies charged with addressing the issue—in the dead of winter. It leads to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR).  

A point-in-time count is a valid way of gathering data, but it has limitations – done thoroughly, it offers just a snapshot of the crisis. This snapshot is far from pretty, but it’s also incomplete. How can we get an accurate picture of the typical experience of homelessness during one of the coldest nights of the year? By HUD’s definition, a man sleeping in his car that night is counted, but the family of four who slept in their car the previous night but are staying with friends to escape the cold on the night of the PIT count is not counted. In fact, families with children are rarely found on the streets or on park benches. They do everything in their power to hide their situation and protect their children from the stigma of homelessness. 

Which brings us back to Kenyal. A call from her sister’s landlord would have forced her and her boys – and possibly her sister – to leave the apartment. She might have bundled the kids up in her Toyota. But much more likely, she would have taken her meager paycheck to pay for a motel or stayed in a friend’s basement.  

So, the PIT would not have counted her in any of those scenarios. Which means she is not included in the AHAR, and HUD does not consider her family to be homeless. (It is worth noting that the Department of Education and other agencies would consider Kenyal’s family homeless, which is why the numbers between HUD and the rest of the agencies are drastically different. The DOE looks at the panorama, HUD, the snapshot. However, HUD has the mandate, and funding, around ending homelessness, which the other agencies do not.) 

To some degree, this is understandable. If you define only the snapshot, you can work on what is in the frame and ignore what is not…or push things out of the frame that don’t complement your picture. Particularly if money is tied to that picture. So, the lens is focused on individual homelessness, the visible population that distresses us as we pass a person sleeping on a subway grate or encamped in a public park. It certainly distresses business owners and property associations. And it should. But reacting only to the visible keeps family homelessness hidden and stigmatized. 

The AHAR tells us nothing about a family like Kenyal’s. If a mother and her young sons are on the streets on a January night, they are counted. If they are at a motel in a cramped room or with a cousin in a rowhouse, they are not. The first scenario is an immediate and isolated crisis. The second is an endemic reality affecting one in 19 children in the U.S. by the time they enter the first grade. 

Ultimately, if we continue to use this snapshot approach and define our solutions through the lens of chronically homeless individuals, we continue to fail families. We continue to fail everyone. 

Kenyal and her boys deserve better. 

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