News and Tribune


February 20, 2013

ANDERSON: Bureaucracy and the poor: The devil is in the details

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of guest columns from Barbara Anderson on poverty and homelessness in the area. Read her previous columns at


As a young social worker, when contemporary homelessness was just beginning to appear on the horizon as an issue, the Department of Housing and Urban Development defined homelessness as: “A person living on the streets, in a car or residing in a place not fit for human habitation.” 

There were actually other definitions at the time, including people at risk of being homeless or with an eviction notice. You could obtain a Section 8 Rental Assistance voucher on an emergency basis if you experienced fire or natural disasters. 

Those days are pretty much gone.

After 28 years of actively working with the poor and homeless, I can say that up until last year the only thing that had not changed while working was the HUD definition of homelessness. If you can’t solve a problem any other way, define it away, that was the theory. I was often told “Barb, be realistic, if we really counted the total population we could never afford to house them.” 

That makes sense to me if you don’t want to do anything about the situation.

We were told to “get creative,” “think outside the box” and deal with it “locally.” When you did try any of the above, it didn’t meet the definition or statutes got in the way. 

And then something happened, a process evolved called the Continuum of Care. It actually required that local providers be part of the process in developing plans that would help to end homelessness as we know it. Or at least that was the initial intent. When the resources were too small we narrowed the definition again. 

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