TAMPA, Fla. — We met Marketaia Ingram on the patio of Karma Nest, a Tampa hotel where she's been living since Oct. 1.
Ingram didn't expect to be there so long.
"No, not at all. Maybe one or two months max," she said.
Ingram said she became homeless for the first time last year after falling victim to a housing scam when she made the move to Florida from North Carolina.
But with housing prices exploding, the one-bedroom hotel room is all she can afford right now for herself and her three young children.
"Very stressful," Ingram said of her situation. "You're expected to be strong and still take care of your children," she said through tears.
But while Ingram and her kids may be considered homeless by school districts, county support groups and the U.S. Department of Education, which makes services available through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, said they don't qualify for certain federal dollars that could take them out of a hotel and into permanent housing.
Why is this the case?
It boils down to how being homeless is defined.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness differently and more narrowly than other government agencies.
In order to qualify for HUD funds including "rapid rehousing," a person must be living in a shelter or out on the streets among other scenarios.
The more restricted definition means people living in hotels, staying with a friend or relative or couch-surfing aren't considered "literally" homeless by HUD standards. Thus, they are not eligible for these HUD funds.
"So this boils down to a definition?" asked Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone.
"Yes, absolutely," said Laura Tucker, a school social worker and homeless liaison for the Hillsborough County School District in Tampa.
To advocates and insiders, the definition issue is a years-long battle and a nationwide problem that most often impacts children and families.
Most students identified as homeless by school districts live in some kind of shared housing at the time they are deemed homeless by their schools.
"Any parents will tell you they would rather stay with a friend or a relative even if it's a tenuous situation," Tucker explained. "They would choose that as opposed to living on the side of the road or in the woods or even a shelter."
The narrow definition and its impact on children shocked even Tucker when she first started working with homeless students five years ago.
"The injustice of that was shocking. It just didn't make any sense to me. It still doesn't," she said.
Of the more than 13,000 students identified in Hillsborough County as homeless over the past three years, more than half of these students were living in some kind of shared housing at the time.
State data provided by Florida's Department of Education shows the same trend for students in every Florida county. As a result, most students and their families are ineligible for the kind of critical HUD funding that could help them secure more stable homes.
"It's a flawed system," Tucker said.
But it's a system that advocates have been trying to change for years.
In 2017, a federal bill was introduced to broaden HUD's definition of homelessness to better align with other federal agencies.
The bill stalled with critics pointing to a lack of money, resources and concern over "priority" cases.
As homelessness is defined right now by HUD, people living in shelters or on the streets are considered more of a priority than families who couch-surf or live night by night in a hotel.
In an email, a spokesperson from HUD stated:
The Biden-Harris Administration is taking steps to realize Secretary Fudge’s vision that everyone in America has a safe, stable place to call home. HUD is ensuring that people experiencing homelessness—including and especially families with children and youth—exit homelessness and enter permanent housing using a range of tailored housing and services. Over the last few years, HUD’s new homeless grant awards have prioritized programs that serve youth, survivors of gender-based violence, and families with children. HUD is also working to scale our rental assistance and affordable housing programs for families and households who experience all forms of housing insecurity, including being doubled-up or severely rent-burdened. And HUD has also been working with other federal agencies to prevent households from housing loss due to eviction and foreclosure.
It is important to note that the Department of Education’s definition of homelessness has a different purpose than HUD’s. HUD and the Department of Education are members of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and work closely to examine our data and to coordinate our programs, including HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program.
"The pandemic has made it much worse," explained Barbara Duffield, executive director of Schoolhouse Connection, a national advocacy group working to overcome homelessness through education.
"Even though there may be a roof over somebody's head, it doesn't mean they're safe or stable," she said.
Duffield was among those who testified before Congress in 2018 in an effort to change how HUD defines homelessness.
Bi-partisan bills have since been reintroduced and with the pandemic forcing more families into homelessness and agencies to reexamine how they respond, Duffield said the law has to change.
"It has to change because if it doesn't we're going to see adult homelessness, the kind of homelessness people are familiar with. That is only going to grow," Duffield said.
With the number of homeless families on the rise, advocates hope lawmakers will recognize the urgency to change the law before these families find themselves seeking help HUD won't give them.
"What would you tell lawmakers?" Reporter Katie LaGrone asked Ingram.
"Think about the mental and emotional health of families. This makes me feel like I failed my kids," Ingram said.