Homelessness label problems

Words are powerful, and they have a particular power when it comes to public policy. As we talk about problems we face in our communities and propose solutions, we have a responsibility to use words precisely and responsibly to describe our world as it is.

We’ve recently heard about the problem of homelessness among school-aged children in West Virginia. It has been said that over 10,000 of our kids are homeless, more than five times the enrollment of our state’s largest high school.

This number is alarming. Taken on its face, it suggests that we should be setting up shelters for these students and their parents, building government-subsidized homes, or reforming housing policies in our cities and towns.

But looking the actual data – which is tracked and reported by the federal government – reveals a slightly different picture.

First, the numbers show that West Virginia is doing fairly well in this category, as compared to other states. The data show 73 family households experiencing homelessness in our state, versus 286 in Kentucky and more than 1,000 in Ohio.

Second and perhaps more importantly, the 10,000 number is based on a definition of homelessness that includes any student who lacks a fixed or regular address. That can include staying with friends or extended family, or temporarily in a hotel.

It also includes students who are living outside their homes due to natural or man-made disasters, like flooding or fire.

I’m concerned that by conflating these complicated and disparate situations under the category of homelessness, we’re obscuring what’s really going on with some of our students and overlooking opportunities to give them help tailored to what they actually need.

If a student’s parent is receiving medical care, and the student is living temporarily with her grandparents in a safe, loving home, that student is not homeless in the way we ordinarily understand that word. But she would be considered homeless under this broad definition. Does applying that label actually help her, or does it confuse the issue?

We are so fortunate in West Virginia to have closely knit families and generous communities who support us through difficult times. When grandparents, other family members, and friends step up to take care of our kids, our institutions should celebrate and support that. Using words like “homelessness” to describe those circumstances seems more hyperbolic than helpful.

None of this is to suggest that students or families in these transitional situations don’t need special help. But to get them that help, we need to be able to describe their challenges accurately – not just reach for the most attention-grabbing word. For example, when temporary caregivers don’t have legal guardianship, it can be difficult for them to navigate government and social services on behalf of the children in their care. We should explore ways to help friends and family cut through red tape in those situations.

We can also help kids experiencing these situations by making sure they are in contact with knowledgeable and caring adults whose job it is to watch, listen, and counsel them through these challenges.

It’s a bit baffling to me to see the education reform package that our Legislature passed in June criticized for overlooking these issues, because it includes $30.5 million for exactly that purpose: to place more nurses, counselors, and mental health professionals in schools across the state. Putting these folks in a position to help students is exactly what we should be doing.

And where children are displaced due to natural disasters – which can happen to any family – we simply must do a faster and better job of getting state and federal aid to the people it’s meant to help.

To suggest that children in the homes of grandparents, other family, or friends are homeless is to minimize the terrible dilemma that truly homeless children face. Make no mistake, there is real homelessness in our state, and we should be doing everything in our power to end it and ensure that every precious child has a safe home.

We can do that most effectively when we use language that illuminates our problems rather than obscures them.

Sen. Carmichael (R-Jackson) is President of the Senate and Lieutenant Governor of West Virginia.

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