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.


Battle Reopens Over Definition of Homelessness

April 2, 2012

It’s sad when nonprofits that advocate for the same cause openly fight with one another.

That’s what we’re seeing now as organizations dedicated to improving services for homeless people take opposite sides on a bill pending in the House of Representatives.

The bill at issue — the Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 32) — would expand the definition of “homeless” in the HEARTH Act, i.e., the latest version of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Why Worry About a Word?

The HEARTH Act definition of “homeless” sets the parameters for local programs supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homeless assistance grants.

It determines both the populations the grant funds may serve and those that get counted and reported to HUD. The figures reported to HUD are reported to Congress — and ultimately to us, through press reports, blog posts and the like.

The definition thus not only reflects, but helps shape public policy.

First Round of the Definition Debate

H.R. 32 reopens an issue that split organizations at the time Congressional committees were developing the HEARTH Act.

The McKinney Vento Act defined homeless people as those who are in shelters, transitional housing or “places not meant for human habitation.”

People living in cheap motels or some friend’s spare bedroom weren’t officially homeless — and thus not eligible for HUD-funded services.

Their children, however, were officially homeless under Title VII of the McKinney-Vento Act — the part that covers requirements and funding for the education of homeless children and youth.

A number of national organizations urged Congress to broaden the general definition to include families whose children were already homeless under Title VII.

That would have extended eligibility for shelter and more stable housing to families living with friends or relatives or in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds because they couldn’t afford “alternative adequate accommodations.”

Other organizations, including the National Alliance to End Homelessness, resisted, foreseeing a large expansion in the eligibility pool with no commensurate increases in funding or fundable initiatives.

Congress ultimately tried to split the difference.

HEARTH Act Compromise

As things stand now, the HEARTH Act definition includes individuals and families if they’re about to be evicted and have no immediate prospects for an alternative residence.

Those living doubled up are part of this group, as are those living in motels — but, as with evictions, but only if they’ll have no place to stay in two weeks.

The new definition also recognizes families and unaccompanied youth who are already homeless under other federal laws, but only if they’ve been without permanent housing for a long time, moved frequently and can be expected to remain unstably housed for one or more of specified reasons, e.g., a chronic disability, a history of domestic violence or childhood abuse, “multiple barriers to employment.”

In short, an expansion, but hedged with conditions.

Round Two

No one, I suppose, found the compromise altogether satisfying. Advocates for the Title VII-type definition surely didn’t.

So they found a friendly House member — Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) — to introduce a bill that would make the HEARTH Act definition the way they always wanted it.

A leading proponent — the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth — says the legislation is urgently needed because “many homeless children and youth are suffering out of public sight.”

We don’t see the hardships they’re enduring because they’re living in motels or doubled up. But they’re actually more in danger of abuse, untreated health problems, hunger and “educational deficits” than those in shelters, NAEHCY says.

HUD’s regulations make it “virtually impossible” for these at-risk children and youth to qualify for the assistance the agency funds. Even those who might meet the HEARTH Act definition could be barred by the formidable documentation and verification requirements.

NAEHCY argues that local service providers are best qualified to know which homeless families and children are most in need of housing and services.

And there’d be no red tape because children and youth already verified as homeless by any one of four federally-funded programs, e.g., a local school district, a Head Start program, would be automatically eligible. Their families as well.

To top it off, the Biggert bill wouldn’t cost anything. That’s again where the conflict lies.

NAEH warns that the expanded definition would divert already inadequate resources from “children who literally have no roof over their heads.”

There’s no indication, it says, that additional funds will be provided to accommodate the increase in the number of families eligible for the assistance HUD funds through its Continuum of Care grants.

I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. If the expanded definition came with a bigger piece of federal budget pie, we wouldn’t have organizations fighting over who should get the crumbs.

Yet, as NAEHCY says, “policy should be based on reality, not fantasy.” Under the current definition, at least 762,000 or so children and youth that most of us would consider homeless aren’t counted as such. Not even an estimate apparently for the number of uncounted homeless families.

Getting a fix on the scope of the problem won’t solve it. But Congress surely won’t act if the numbers it gets minimize the crisis.


Thousands More DC Residents Could Become Homeless

February 9, 2012

The state of homelessness in the District, as reported by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, has two parts. I’ve already reviewed the recent trends in homelessness. Here, as promised, are some key trends that indicate near-term risks of future homeless.

NAEH deals with eight risk factors in all — four that it classifies as economic and four as demographic. As with homelessness rates, it reports both nationwide and state-level figures. These indicate increases and decreases in risk between 2009 and 2010.

For the nation as a whole, all but one of the economic indicators spell more trouble ahead, as do two of the demographic indicators.

What’s surprising — at least to me — is that some key District indicators trend down. The magnitude of some of the changes is also surprising.

But, of course, the level of risk matters more than any one-year change. And for some risks, the District’s levels are very high indeed.

Here are examples.

Severe Housing Cost Burdens

As with other analyses, a “severe housing cost burden” means that rent or mortgage payments consume at least 50% of a household’s income.

Such a burden is obviously a high risk for homelessness because any adverse impact on income — job loss, injury, spike in utility costs, etc. — can mean not enough left for rent.

NAEH focuses solely on “poor renter households,” i.e., those with incomes at or below the federal poverty line. In 2010, 14.28% fewer District households in this group reportedly struggled with severe housing cost burdens.

But that left 76.8% of them — somewhat over 17,000 poor households — with half or less of their income for anything but rent.

Unemployment

The unemployment rate in the District rose to an annual average of 9.9% in 2010 — 3.13% higher than in 2009. It’s ticked up now to 10.4%.

But the unemployment rate is just the tip of the risk iceberg because it reflects only jobless people who reported they’d actively looked for work in the last four weeks.

What we know then is that there were 32,963 jobless job seekers in the District in 2010.

No way of knowing how many had given up looking or decided it was futile from the get-go. But we need to bear them in mind when we think about the level of risk.

Average Income of the Working Poor

Here again, NAEH focuses on people in households at or below the federal poverty line. They’re counted as workers if they were employed at least 27 weeks — the usual Bureau of Labor Statistics standard.

Adjusting for inflation, poor working people in the U.S. earned, on average, slightly more in 2010 than in 2009. But those who lived in the District, earned 13.2% less — an average of just $6,937 for the year.

This is less than the average for the working poor in any state — and less than half the 2010 fair market rent for a one-bedroom unit in the D.C. area.

Living Doubled Up

People are at extraordinary risk of homelessness when they’re doubled up, i.e., living with friends or family because they can’t afford a place of their own.

NAEH focuses on those at the bottom of the income scale — in this case at or below 135% of the federal poverty line. It calculates the risk that they’ll become homeless within a year at 1 in 12.

In 2010, it reports, the number of low-income people in the District who were living doubled up dropped by 21.37% — from 19,950 to 15,686.

Percentages went up in all but 10 states, making for a nationwide increase of 12.64%.

Why is the District an outlier here?

One answer, if only partial, could be that the risk became a reality for a fair number of those who’d been doubled up in 2009. Recall that most homelessness rates rose significantly in the District, far more than nationwide.

What the Risk Factors Mean

All the risk factors boil down to one simple thing: Too many people can’t afford a place to live.

They could if the District offered more housing in a price range low-income people can afford — and more vouchers to make higher-cost housing affordable for them.

The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development has an agenda to get the District back on track in this area.

On the other hand, more people could afford to pay more for housing if they had full-time living wage jobs with essential benefits, e.g., health insurance, paid leave.

So there’s a role here for targeted job creation and long-overdue improvements in workforce development. Needless to say, education too.

And what about more funding for child care subsidies so that low-income parents can afford to work?

And what about reforms in our child welfare system, which is still turning out youth with no place to go and no one to turn to? And what about …

Well, you get the point. What the risk factors show is that homelessness is actually a symptom of diverse systemic problems.

This, to me, is the most important message NAEH delivers. For the District it’s an urgent one.

For the federal government too, but our neighbors up on Capitol Hill seem not to be listening.


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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