The latest status report on homelessness from the National Alliance to End Homelessness has triggered a spate of the sort of news articles we’re getting used to by now. The recession is putting “a new face on homelessness” — a face, I should add, that we seem more interested in looking at because it’s much like our own.
Striving middle and near-middle class families done in by job and/or business losses, a shrunken labor market, foreclosures and overwhelming debt. Not just those drug addicts and mentally ill people whom we’re told the homeless condition used to be reserved for — though poor families would, of course, tell us otherwise.
I’ve no doubt that the overall picture the NAEH report gives us is true. Homelessness increased between 2008 and 2009. And the uptick was driven by the increase in the number of homeless individuals in families — up by 3% nationwide. Or so the report says.
When we drill down to the state-level figures, we see that this nationwide figure masks huge differences — so large as to make me question the underlying data.
How can it be that the family homeless population in Nevada decreased by 46.6% when the state had the largest foreclosure rate and the second highest unemployment rate in the country?
Did the family homeless population in Mississippi really increase by 261.4%? Seems more likely to be that there were actually more than just 254 homeless state residents in families in 2008.
Well, NAEH has to work with the data it can get. For the homeless population, that means the point-in-time counts that local Continuum of Care entities report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
These are fundamentally flawed for two reasons. First, as NAEH dutifully notes, methodologies vary by community and by year. We could, I think, go further. Some communities undoubtedly do more accurate counts than others.
If they’ve got few shelters and transitional housing facilities, they won’t find many people there. If they don’t have a big posse of folks out in the middle of a cold winter night scouring places where unsheltered people might be, they’ll miss a lot of them. I suspect these undercount factors are especially common outside large urban areas.
A second reason, as I’ve written before, is that the point-in-time counts must use a definition of homelessness that excludes a great many homeless people — those who are doubled up, i.e., living with friends or relatives due to economic need, those in camping grounds and those eking out an existence in cheap motel rooms.
And who are these people most likely to be? Probably individuals in families and youth who’ve fled or been thrown out of their homes.
So when we’re told that about 243,000 individuals in families were homeless in 2009, we need to recall that this is some unknown fraction of the whole. Utterly unknown are the number of homeless youth on their own because COCs don’t need to break out a count for them.
What we do know, thanks to NAEH, is that the percent of individuals doubled up increased four times as much as the percent increase it reports for the homeless. If the former were counted as homeless, the 2008-9 increase in the total number of homeless people would be about 10.8%, rather than the 3% NAEH reports.
That figure might set off alarm bells — especially if it reflected mainly those nice unexpectedly homeless families whose stories frame so many articles on the impacts of the recession.
What surely ought to set off alarm bells are the homelessness risk factor NAEH reports on — these based on considerably more reliable data sources.
Living doubled up is one of the risks, since it’s often a precursor to literal, i.e., countable, homelessness. Others in the NAEH analysis include unemployment, lack of health insurance, housing cost burdens for poor households, the average annual income of the “working poor” and, of course, foreclosures.
As NAEH shows, all these indicators worsened in 2009.
- The number of people who were unemployed and actively looking for work increased by 59.9% to about 14.3 million.
- The percent of people without health insurance rose just 1%, but in most states, it was already very high. Nationwide, more than 47 million people were uninsured in 2009 — one severe illness or accident away from homelessness.
- The number of poor households, i.e., those below the poverty threshold, that were paying more than 50% of their income for housing increased by 9% to nearly 5.9 million households. As a result, more than 70% of these households were “severely cost-burdened” in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
- The average inflation-adjusted income for poor workers dropped by 2% to a mere $9,151 for the year.
- Foreclosures increased by 21% to more than 2.8 million — this on top of more than 2.3 million in 2008.
These findings, says NAEH, indicate potential further increases in homelessness. So “as the new Congress and the Administration consider steps to revitalize the American economy with jobs, extension of benefits, and access to health care, they would be well advised … to incorporate homeless interventions in their strategies.”
Ah yes, but are they considering any such steps? Last time I checked, the majority in one house of Congress planned to dismantle the health care reform act and drastically cut federal spending on benefits and other stimulus measures.
Not, I think, a promising policy environment for addressing the rising tide of homelessness in our country. But don’t look to NAEH to say so.