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.
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.