HUD Reports Dropping Homelessness Rates

As you may have read, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has released the nationwide results of last January’s point-in-time counts — the one-night census of homeless people that HUD requires of all its homeless assistance grant recipients.

The headlined news is that homelessness seems to be “holding steady,” as HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan puts it.

The bigger news, I think, is that homelessness rates are apparently lower than they were in 2007. This is true not only for the grand total, but for all the specific groups in the required PIT breakouts.

Some of the long-range percentage declines are so counterintuitive as to make me wonder whether we’re getting a true read or results of some unaccounted for changes in methodology.

After all, we’ve had a major recession, with lingering consequences. Nearly four million homes lost due to foreclosures.

About 4.1 million jobs lost that haven’t been replaced. A record high number of long-term jobless workers. Other labor market woes as well.

On the other hand, we do have some progress that’s fairly easy to explain. So within the definitional limits of the PIT counts maybe the rest is real too.

In any event, here are the key figures.

According to the PIT counts, the total number of people who were homeless during some night in late January was 633,782.

This is a fraction of a percent fewer than reported the year before. The number is 5.8% lower than for January 2007. In other words, 38,106 fewer literally homeless people.

The number of homeless individuals, i.e., not with a family member, ticked down 1.4% to 394,379. In January 2007, there were 6.8% — 28,998 — more of them.

The number of homeless people in families* rose by 1.4%, to 239,403. But the number of homeless families was basically the same as in 2011 — 77,157.

As compared to January 2007, there were 3.7% fewer homeless people in families and 8% fewer homeless families. These percents translate into 9,108 fewer homeless family members and 6,778 fewer homeless families.

We see larger drops in two populations that HUD — and more recently, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — have made top priorities.

The number of chronically homeless individuals** declined 6.8%, to 99,894. There were 19.3% — 23,939 — more people classified as chronically homeless in January 2007.

It seems reasonable to suppose that these figures reflect increases in permanent supportive housing — a strategy designed for chronically homeless people that’s strongly encouraged by the structure of HUD’s assistance programs, as well as a number of research and advocacy organizations.

Federal policies also account for much, if not all of the reported progress toward the goal of ending veterans’ homelessness.

According to the latest PIT counts, the number of homeless veterans declined 7.2%, to 62,619. This is 17.2% fewer than in 2009, the baseline year for this population.

The big factor here is the HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) voucher program, which has reportedly supported permanent housing, plus supportive services for more than 42,000 veterans since the program started in 2008.

An additional factor I’d guess is that the VA side of the funding can also be used to prevent veterans from becoming homeless, e.g., by paying some one-time costs of moving to housing they can afford.

In this respect, it’s somewhat like the broader Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program that was part of the Recovery Act.

HUD gives HPRP part of the credit for the just-reported homelessness decreases. And it does seem likely that the short-term help the program funded was enough for people who’d suffered temporary setbacks.

And now what? Communities had only three years to spend their HPRP grants. So they’ll have no money from that pot in the coming year — and even in the best of cases, no boost in their basic homeless assistance grants to cover the loss.

They’d share a loss of about $180 million if the “fiscal cliff” negotiations don’t halt the impending across-the-board cuts.

And there’d be lots more homeless people in want of help — more than 282,000 additional households, according to one estimate.

In short, such genuine progress as there’s been could be short-lived.

* These are only people “who are homeless as part of households that have at least one adult and one child.”

** By HUD’s definition, these are people who have a disability, including a mental illness and/or substance abuse problem, and who’ve been homeless for at least a year or at least four times in the last three years.

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