HUD Reports Dropping Homelessness Rates

December 13, 2012

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.


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

July 10, 2011

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.


Who Counts As Homeless?

January 26, 2009

Across the country, volunteers are turning out to help count the homeless people in their communities. They will do their best, within the guidelines they’re given. But they won’t come up with anything like an accurate number.

Part of the problem, of course, is that some homeless people will be widely scattered in side streets, alleys, parked cars and other places where they’re hard to find. One client at So Others Might Eat has spoken of spending three days in a trash chute.

But the more basic problem is that many homeless people will be deliberately excluded from the count. Here’s why.

Communities try to count homeless people because it’s a requirement for receiving funds under three so-called Continuum of Care programs. These programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. So communities have to use HUD’s definition of “homeless.”

According to HUD, people count as homeless if they are in:

  • Emergency shelters
  • Transitional housing, including hotel or motel rooms paid for by vouchers
  • “Places not meant for human habitation such as cars, parks, abandoned buildings and on the street”

So people are not counted as homeless if they’re living doubled up with friends or relatives or if they’re in camping grounds or cheap motels because they can’t afford a month’s worth of rent or a security deposit. Nor are children counted if they’re in institutions because their parents are homeless.

Countless (pun intended) individuals and families are in one of these situations. Blogger Diane Nilan summarizes some of the major reasons. Others include unsafe and unhealthful conditions in shelters, inaccessibility for disabled individuals and just plain lack of shelters, particularly in rural communities.

Granted, it would be difficult to count homeless people doubled up or in motel rooms they’re paying for themselves. But ignoring the fact they exist is hardly an answer. And that’s what HUD did in using the homeless count and other data based on its definition to report on the extent of homelessness in the country.

As a result, neither the Congress nor the American public has a realistic view of how many homeless people there are. And, if we don’t know that, how can we know, except anecdotally, how well–or poorly–existing programs are working?

The last Congress considered bills that would have expanded the HUD definition of “homeless” as part of the reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. It will have another chance when it returns to this unfinished task.

What Congress should do is controversial, but the debate is really about who should be served by the COC programs. This is–or should be–a separate issue from the issue of how we count homeless people.


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