What if the fire department had to deal with multiple definitions of the word “fire?” What if homeowners had one definition, police had a different definition, and public schools had yet a third definition? It would be confusing and inefficient to respond if everybody understood fire differently. Indeed, it would waste time right when timing is everything.

It’s the same with homelessness, and especially for children and families. Washington state has been operating with more than one definition of homelessness. And this causes problems. For example, a mother and child who lose their home, then double up with another family in an overcrowded apartment, would not always be qualified to receive services. As ridiculous as it may sound, social workers have had to tell families that they would need to stay outdoors before certain housing assistance services could be provided.

But there is good news. A newly passed bill (SHB 1221, sponsored by Rep. Rule) is now law. It will reduce inefficiency, help children sooner and help families get the help they need without having to be thrust out onto the streets. Gov. Jay Inslee signed this new standardization into law on April 16.

The homelessness of children and families is much less visible than the homelessness of single adults. So much so, that most people tend not to realize it is an issue. But in Washington, 80,000 children and youth touch homelessness each year: 50% are K-12 students, and 50% are pre-K ages.

A sold-out Seahawks game seats 72,000 people. Imagine more than that — 80,000 babies, toddlers, children and youth — experiencing homelessness. It is unwieldy and inefficient for social services safety nets to respond when there are different definitions of homelessness in play — definitions that leave so many children unaccounted for.

The state’s public schools have been working with a perfectly acceptable definition of homelessness, which classifies a student as being homeless when they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes sleeping on friends or relatives’ couches because they do not have a home that is their own. But while K-12 schools are using this definition, other government agencies and nonprofit social service organizations have been operating under different definitions. When a schoolteacher identified a child in need and referred a student’s family for help, they would learn that the definition used by the schools was not relevant when it came to accessing services through state agencies and most city and county programs. We need each branch of government to update their definitions for greatest alignment.

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The new state definition moves us from “living under a bridge, or in a tent” to “not having secure housing” such as doubling up with another family due to poverty, domestic violence or other causes.

This law is an important next step to assist families who have lost housing and are temporarily staying with another family, those sleeping in substandard buildings, as well as babies on piles of blankets on the floor of a generous neighbor.

Social service workers and teachers see firsthand how the direct experience of children, youth and families can be positively impacted by an administrative change like this. The state of Washington is obligated to make sure that the youngest and most vulnerable in our society are safely housed and able to learn. The recent passage of SHB 1221 will help to make this possible. It’s correcting a glitch in defining homelessness that has held back the helpers for far too long, and it will finally be erased.

The adage “define your terms” has never been more true than with the word “homelessness.” This new law defines the crisis for children consistently. In turn, it allows essential service providers to be able to help children, youth and families exit homelessness swiftly and — even better — to avoid becoming homeless in the first place.