Working a stable job, paying rent on time, keeping a clean house ─ being a model tenant was not enough to keep a roof over Cokethia Goodman and her six children. When their Atlanta neighborhood became a hot market, their property’s owner decided to sell, and the family had to move. Their situation went downhill from there, taking them briefly to a Rodeway Inn paid for by the Red Cross, before struggling to secure homeless services.
For The New Republic, Brian Goldstone spent nearly a year reporting on the Goodman family’s struggle to live in Atlanta, and the larger phenomenon of working homelessness, where people without a residence still don’t qualify for certain essential types of assistance. This is a story about a lack of tenant protections, the human cost of so-called urban revitalization, rising rents and declining wages, and the tenuous positions of America’s working poor. As Goodman says, “I grew up in Atlanta. I graduated from high school in this city. Through my job, I’ve been taking care of people in this city. And now my kids and I are homeless? How does that even happen?”
Goodman’s predicament is increasingly common as the ranks of the working homeless multiply. The present support system, according to advocacy groups, effectively ignores scores of homeless families—excluding them from public discourse and locking them out of crucial support. This is due, in large part, to the way that HUD tallies and defines homelessness. Every January, in roughly 400 communities across the country, a battalion of volunteers, service providers, and government employees sets out to conduct the annual homeless census, referred to as the Point-in-Time count. Usually undertaken late at night and into the early morning, the HUD-overseen census is meant to provide a comprehensive snapshot of homelessness in America: its hot spots and demographics, its causes and magnitude. Last year, on the basis of this data, HUD reported a 23 percent decline in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness since 2007. The only problem, according to critics, is that HUD’s definition of “homeless,” and thus the scope of its Point-in-Time count, is severely limited, restricted to people living in shelters or on the streets. Everyone else—those crammed into apartments with others, or living in cars or hotels—is rendered doubly invisible: at once hidden from sight and disregarded by the official reporting metrics.
Julie Dworkin, the director of policy at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, has called attention to the profound consequences of this neglect. Not only are families denied housing assistance from HUD and its local partners, but, as the federal agency’s figures make their way into the media, the true scale and nature of the crisis is also obscured. In 2016, Dworkin and her colleagues began conducting their own survey of Chicago’s homeless population, expanding it beyond the HUD census to include families doubled up with others. Their total was twelve times that of the Point-in-Time count: 82,212 versus 6,786. “The idea that these families aren’t ‘actually’ homeless because they’re not in shelters is absurd,” Dworkin told me. “Oftentimes the shelters are full, or there simply are no family shelters—in which case, all these people are essentially abandoned by the system.” She noted the myth that families with children living in doubled-up arrangements are somehow less vulnerable than those in shelters, when these conditions can be just as detrimental to a child’s education, mental and physical health, and long-term development.
In Atlanta, where city leaders (and local headlines) have touted a drop in homelessness over the past four years, there has been no comparable effort to track the number of unhoused families who fall outside the official count. Data collected by other federal agencies does exist, however, and the chasm between their respective findings is similarly striking. The Department of Education defines as homeless anyone who lacks “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” which explicitly encompasses those in motels and doubled up. During the 2016–2017 school year, the Department of Education reported 38,336 homeless children and youth enrolled in Georgia public schools; that same year, the state’s HUD-administered total, not just for children and youth but for the entire homeless population, was 3,716. Politicians cited the smaller number when shaping the public narrative about homelessness in the state; that figure also helps determine the amount of money allocated to homeless services the following year. Meanwhile, the parents of those 38,336 students are caught between two parallel definitions. At their child’s school, they are homeless. At Gateway, they are not.