Stateline Story

Report: Confusion Over 'Homelessness' Can Mean Less Food Aid to Needy

Many low-income Americans who have lost their homes to foreclosure and are living with friends could be eligible for more food stamp assistance and not even know it, says an advocacy group that is urging states to ask better questions to ensure people get the proper level of assistance. 

The federal food stamp program allows, but doesn't require, states to offer a "homeless shelter deduction" that essentially increases the level of benefits for anyone without a permanent residence. Currently 26 states offer the deduction "and in those states, very few households claim the deduction," says a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.

The food stamp benefit differs from state to state and depends on a number of factors, including the person's income and expenses and the number of people in the household. Generally, the larger the household and the lower the income, the higher the benefit amount will be. The average monthly benefit last year was about $134, but ranged from $117 in Wisconsin to $150 in New York. 

Homeless people who have no income typically will receive the maximum benefit under the food stamp program, technically known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. States with homeless shelter deductions essentially allow people who are homeless, but who have spent money on shelter, to deduct a flat $143 from their gross income. 

But simply asking people if they are "homeless" may be missing some who are legally qualified for the extra help. It's not just those who are living on the street or in homeless shelters, explains Ty Jones, who wrote the report. Also considered "homeless" are those who live temporarily with a friend or family member. 

These people may not even consider themselves homeless since they do live in a regular residence, just not their own, she says. And some people may not want to call themselves homeless because of the stigma. 

Jones says Colorado has a better approach to ensuring proper benefits than simply asking "are you homeless?" Instead, Colorado asks "What is your current living arrangement? Check all boxes that apply to your situation." The options include living with relatives, living with friends, living in a group home and staying in a shelter. 

West Virginia also gives this example to help people figure out if a family receiving food stamp benefits qualifies for the homeless shelter deduction: "They are living first with one relative and then another, paying a token amount for their keep. This family qualifies for the deduction because it has incurred expenses for shelter," the state explains. 

States have wide latitude in determining what expenses can be used for the deduction. Payments to homeless shelters, hotels, and family or friends for temporary housing are commonly counted. For those living in their vehicles, payments on the vehicle and a portion of insurance also can count. 

The Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group, provides more information about rights of the homeless under the food stamps program in this factsheet.

Tags: Safety Net