DC Homelessness Figures Buck Nationwide Trends

January 26, 2012

This year’s State of Homelessness report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness presents, in some ways, a rosier picture than last year’s.

Big headline is that homelessness decreased between 2009 and 2011 — not only the overall rate, but the rates for people in families, veterans and the chronically homeless, i.e., individuals with disabilities, including mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders, who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently.

As I noted last year, NAEH relies, for want of an alternative, on the point-in-time counts conducted by communities that receive homelessness grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Its raw figures, therefore, understate the extent of homelessness. Gross changes, however, probably mean something, since the PIT flaws are relatively constant from year to year.

The greater limit in the headlined news is that the nationwide trends mask wide variations among states.

Figures for the District of Columbia are a good case in point. All but one buck the nationwide trends NAEH reports. This is moderately good news in one case. Bad in the rest.

Overall homelessness. In 2011, as compared to 2009, the overall nationwide homeless rate decreased 1.1%. But in the District, it increased 5.11%. Nearly half the states also experienced increases.

Homelessness among people in families. Homelessness in this population, i.e., adults and children who were together when counted, decreased 3.390.81% nationwide. In the District, it increased 17.8%. There were also increases in 20 states.

Chronic homelessness. The chronic homelessness rate decreased 3.39% nationwide. In the District, it increased 8.84%. Rates also went up in 18 states.

Veterans homelessness. By far and away the biggest progress here — undoubtedly due to the big push at the federal level. Nationwide, the veterans homelessness rate decreased 10.73%. Rates also decreased in 35 states.

Here the District follows the national trend, with a drop of 19.78%. But no state wound up in 2011 with nearly as high a percentage of homeless veterans in its population.

Unsheltered homelessness. Nationwide, the unsheltered homelessness rate, i.e., the percent of homeless people found on the streets or “in other places not meant for human habitation,” rose 1.64%.

But it was 4.98% lower in the District. Rates were also lower in 22 states. As with the District, however, the percentages generally reflect very small numerical changes.

So what do we make of all of this?

For NAEH, the big message is that the temporary Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program created by the Recovery Act worked.

Though nationwide homelessness rates didn’t decline much, they would surely have risen, it says, without the funds communities got for a variety of short-shot types of assistance, e.g., payment of overdue rent or a utilities bill, funds for a security deposit and/or first month’s rent.

So now that communities have exhausted their HPRP funds — or soon will — Congress should put more money into the regular homelessness grants program.

No argument from me about that.

But the state of homelessness in the District — and elsewhere — suggests that funds targeted to people who’ve lost their housing or soon will won’t be enough to end homelessness in our lifetime.

The NAEH report, in fact, indicates as much in two very interesting chapters on risk factors for future homelessness.

Too interesting to cram into this post. So I’ll leave them for another.

But without giving the plot away, I’ll say here that the risk factors point to the need for a range of investments, including funds for lots more affordable housing.


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