Not all “doubled-up” households are living on the edge. In fact, many enjoy greater income, social support, and well-being than they would separately. Even so, “doubling-up” can be a harbinger of housing instability and eventual homelessness for many people. Since the start of the housing crisis in 2006, not only has the number of “doubled-up” households increased, but the number of people showing up in shelters directly from these housing situations has jumped 74 percent, from 220,000 in 2006 to 383,000 in 2010.
We often think of the visitors in “doubled-up” households as the most at risk for homelessness since many have already lost permanent housing. But taking in friends or family can threaten the housing stability of the hosts as well. For example, on a recent site visit to a rural state, I heard that taking in a teenage son’s homeless friend had tipped a cash-strapped family over the edge, facilitating the loss of their housing and landing them in a tent at a local park.
Many debate whether “doubled-up” people like this should be considered homeless. Particularly in areas with few or no shelters and cold winters, a good estimate of people in these at-risk households may be more informative than standard point-in-time counts that only include sheltered individuals and those living in places not meant for human habitation at the end of January. Yet, some advocates argue that considering those at-risk homeless before an actual homelessness event would take away resources needed to serve people who are literally homeless.
In a way, HUD’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) has tried to address this concern by setting aside money specifically for homelessness prevention and requiring communities to screen “doubled-up” applicants, among others, for “imminent risk.” Because grantees have significant discretion, they are able to offer HPRP assistance to “doubled-up” households in both the case of a formal eviction of the entire household and in cases where the host had decided to put out a visitor.
However, going forward, it looks future homelessness prevention efforts won’t be so flexible. Earlier this week, HUD released its final regulations on the on the definition of homelessness. HUD includes individuals and families at “imminent risk” among the categories of people eligible for homeless assistance. However, to document this risk, HUD only allows formal documentation of an eviction, effectively excluding “doubled-up” cases where only the visitors within a household are the ones are risk.
The truth is, we know very little about what puts this second kind of “doubled-up” households at “imminent risk” of homelessness. But that can actually be said of those who meet the new “imminent risk” as well. It’s nearly impossible to know whether someone who gets assistance would have become homeless without it.
Policymakers need good estimates of people at risk of housing instability, not only to decide how to allocate homelessness system dollars, but also to think about how to fund and distribute housing resources more broadly. Census recently came out with a more nuanced poverty measure to inform estimates of need for social services. We need an analogous measure for housing programs which embraces housing instability as a continuum. Research on the dynamics of “doubled-up” families would be a great place to start.