Homelessness in America: Progress, Stasis, Backsliding and Forewarnings

The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently issued its third report on homelessness, both nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

As I’ve said before, NAEH relies mainly, as it must, on federal government sources. For homelessness itself, this means the limited and not altogether reliable point-in-time counts that recipients of homeless assistance grants report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That said, it seems reasonable to assume that the methods recipients use generally don’t change much from one year to the next. So the percent changes NAEH reports are probably fairly accurate.

What we see overall are continuing trends — not only for homelessness itself, but for factors that indicate high risks of homelessness.

Homelessness Nationwide

The total number of literally homeless people dropped by 0.4% last year — such a small decrease as to represent more or less a steady state. All told, 633,782 people were counted as homeless.

Decreases for veterans and individuals classified as chronically homeless were much larger — 7.2% and 6.8% respectively.

The number of homeless families remained virtually the same — 77,157, as compared to 77,186 in 2011. However, the rate of family homelessness rose in 27 states and the District.

And the number of homeless people in families rose by 1.4% to 239,403. NAEH translates this into an estimated 3,251 more homeless children who were with an adult.

Over the longer term, homelessness for all the individual populations counted has trended down. We see a few blips up from one year to the next, but lower figures for all since 2005, when HUD standardized point-in-time data collections.

On a less cheery note, 38.4% of the homeless people counted last year — 243,627 — had no form of shelter or housing at all, except perhaps a car, an abandoned building or some other indoor place “not meant for human habitation.”

This is virtually the same number as were counted in 2011.

The decreases in both chronic and veteran homelessness clearly reflect the priority that communities have placed on them in response to direction from HUD and, more recently, targeted funding from the Veterans Administration.

Most permanent supportive housing is for chronically homeless individuals, including veterans. Last year, there were more PSH beds than beds in emergency shelters or transitional housing — a time-limited type of housing that also includes services.

Homelessness Risk Factors

The risk factors NAEH reports fall into two related categories — income and housing costs.

On the income side, the official unemployment rate was lower in 2011 than in 2010 — down to a still high 8.9%.

This is a limited indicator, however, since it doesn’t include people employed part-time who wanted — and, in some cases, used to have — full-time work. Nor does it include people who didn’t look for work because it seemed futile.

The median household income was a bit lower in 2011 and the official poverty rate 0.6% higher, pushing the number of poor adults and children up to more than 48.4 million.

Some of them were undoubtedly beyond the risk stage.

On the housing cost side, fair market rents increased in 38 states. The nationwide FMR for a modest two-bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities rose 1.5%, making for a five-year increase of 15.1%.

More than 6.5 million households spent more than half their income for rent — 5.5% more than in 2010. And the bottom fifth on the income scale spent, on average, a mind-boggling 87% of their income.

Well over 7.4 million people in poor households were living doubled-up with friends or family members. This represents a 9.4% increase over 2010.

HUD reports tell us that doubling up is a major warning sign for future homelessness. In 2011, nearly 32% of people admitted to a shelter had been staying with friends or family immediately before.

The policy implications here seem blatantly obvious. Putting people back to work — and to work for the first time — would help reduce homelessness if the jobs paid a decent wage.

But we need much greater investments in affordable housing too — more support for construction and preservation, more funds for public housing operations and maintenance and considerably more for housing vouchers.

We see marked downturns in the rates of chronically homeless individuals and veterans. They show what could happen if our government got equally serious about the rest of the homeless population.

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One Response to Homelessness in America: Progress, Stasis, Backsliding and Forewarnings

  1. […] the report;┬áRead a summary from the blog Poverty and […]

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