Progress Toward Ending Homelessness Not In Sight, New HUD Report Shows

Just finished plowing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual homelessness assessment report for 2010. Many, many figures. Many perspectives on the issues.

At the end of it all, I said to myself, Well, it could have been worse. Then, And it probably was — and very well may be even worse in the upcoming fiscal year.

The homeless situation was probably worse because the most comprehensive figures the report provides come from the point-in-time counts that Continuum of Care agencies must conduct to receive HUD grants for their homelessness programs.

As I’ve said before, the COC counts must use HUD’s restrictive definition of “homeless”. And we can hardly expect volunteers who fan out at night in the depth of winter to find all the homeless people who’ve take refuge in abandoned buildings, stairwells and other out-of-the-way places.

These, however, are consistent defects. So it seems reasonable to assume that changes in the reported PIT figures reflect actual trends.

The one-year changes HUD reports are what could have been a good deal worse.

The total number of homeless people recorded during the January 2010 PIT counts was 649,917 — a very large number, but only 6,850 more than in January 2009. This represents an increase of 1.1%.

The counts also produced only small increases in family homelessness. Just 928 — 1.2% — more homeless families than the 75,518 counted in January 2009. About 3,840 more homeless family members — an increase of 1.6%.

No one, I trust, would view any increase as a cause for celebration. Such small upticks, however, are rather surprising in light of the continuing impacts of the recession — foreclosures, job losses, related increases in severe housing cost burdens, etc.

More troubling, I think, are where the homeless people were counted. Only 52% of single homeless individuals were in emergency shelters or transitional housing. The remaining 48% were on the streets or in some other place “not meant for human habitation.”

More than 21% of homeless families were also unsheltered — 2.8% more than in 2009.

We don’t know how many of these unsheltered families had children — or how many children had no roof over their heads. We do know, however, that the majority of homeless families consist of a mother and two young children.

Also that the face of homelessness is changing. Since 2007, the number of homeless people in families has increased by 20%, while the number of “chronically homeless” individuals has decreased by 11%.

The latter are the people whom policymakers have focused on — individuals with disabilities, including mental illness and/or substance abuse problems, who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently.

Permanent supportive housing was initially designed for them. It’s now, HUD says, the single largest part of the homeless housing inventory, providing beds not only for chronically homeless individuals but others, including homeless people in families.

HUD is undoubtedly right in saying that PSH growth probably accounts, at least in part, for the drop in the number of chronically homeless individuals. Without it, the homeless family numbers would probably have been larger too.

But PSH programs cost money to develop and money to sustain. And Congress seems hardly in the mood to provide more for local communities that are struggling with their own revenue constraints.

One reason things could get worse by the time the next homeless count rolls round.

The other reason is that COCs will have exhausted their share of the $1.5 billion in temporary funding for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing that was part of the economic recovery act.

These funds, HUD says, also help account for last year’s relatively small increases in homelessness.

In 2010, 690,264 people, including children, got some form of assistance under HPRP. HUD reports that at least 87.8% of them found a “permanent housing destination.”* For most, this was a rental unit.

But more than 67% of the adult program leavers had monthly cash incomes of $1,000 or less. And whatever housing subsidy they got is necessarily temporary. What will keep them from joining — or rejoining — the homeless population?

For some, accommodations in PSH. For the greater number, housing vouchers and/or other affordable housing arrangements.

Which brings us back to the funding issue.

The House Appropriations Transportation/HUD Subcommittee is still working on program funding levels for Fiscal Year 2012. It’s been told to produce a bill costing $7.7 billion less than this fiscal year’s total.

This hardly augurs well for local homelessness prevention programs or the diverse programs that will probably face the need to shelter and house some 1.9 million homeless adults and children, as they did in 2010.

* Some HPRP grantees failed to report outcomes for everyone who’d received assistance. Of those whose “exits” were reported, 94% had a “permanent housing destination.” As I indicate, how permanent is an open question.

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