Homelessness in America: Progress, Stasis, Backsliding and Forewarnings

May 6, 2013

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.


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.


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