The just-released report on last January’s one-night homeless count in the Washington area may deliver a shock to even those who’ve followed the homeless family crisis in the District.
The count identified more homeless families than in any year since the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments first reported them separately.
The number of homeless individuals who had no children in their care ticked down again. But the increase in adults and children counted as family members was so large as to push the homeless total up to the highest level since the counts began.
Highest Homeless Total in Thirteen Years
The count found 8,350 homeless people in the District — 1,052 more than only a year ago. This represents an increase of 14.4%.
Looking back to 2004, when the District, like other communities that receive homeless assistance grants, first had to conduct one-night counts, the total increased by nearly 43.3%.
Far More Homeless Families
The count identified 1,491 homeless families — 360 more than in 2015, making for an increase of 31.8%. The new number is about two-and-a-half times as many as in 2008, when the recession first set in and the count reports began including the family number.
The homeless families included 1,945 adults and 2,722 children they were caring for, representing increases of 36.2% and roughly 31.9% respectively.
The total number of homeless persons in families, as the report refers to them, was thus 4,667. This is twice as many as in 2004 — and an increase of about 154.2% since 2008, the lowest count on record.
About a quarter of the persons were adults no older than twenty-four — about the same percent as last year, but a higher raw number. These so-called transition age youth account for about 60% of the increase in adult family members counted.
Count of Homeless Singles Dips Again
The number of homeless singles, i.e., those who don’t have children with them, declined from 3,821 in 2015 to 3,683 this year. The new number is also somewhat lower than the counts for 2013 and 2014, but not by much.
We clearly had more homeless singles when the Great Recession hit and in the years immediately thereafter. Since then, the numbers dropped and then rose again, though not markedly. The differences may have more to do with count conditions, e.g., weather, than the homeless population.
Continuing Downward Slide for Chronically Homeless Singles
Among the singles were 1,501 in the chronically homeless subgroup, i.e., people homeless for a long time or recurrently and with at least one disability.
The District’s goal, like that of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is to effectively end chronic homelessness by the end of 2017. It seems unlikely to achieve that. But it’s well on the way. The count identified 92 fewer chronically homeless singles than in 2015 — the fewest then since 2011, when the numbers began steadily dropping.
So we’ve got a clear downward trend, as we don’t for any other subgroup the report breaks out — except, more recently, veterans, who often have disabilities and so get counted as chronically homeless. Shows again what money can do.
Not Quite So Many Young Homeless Singles
Also among the singles were 201 transition age youth — a few more than in 2015, when communities first had to report them separately. But they’re still a small fraction of this vulnerable age group.
As is generally the case with homeless people counted as singles, some may have a spouse or other partner. Neither the count nor the homeless services system recognizes families who’ve got no children with them, as I’ve remarked before.
Perhaps Not That Many More Recently Homeless Families
The District attributes the increase in homeless families to the undeniable shortage of affordable housing in the city, but not only that.
It also cites an “increased demand for stable housing assistance that is brought to bear on the homeless system” and the recent reversion to the long-standing policy of granting shelter to homeless families year round, instead of only when they’re at risk of freezing.
What this suggests, though I doubt it means to is that the District probably under-reported homeless families in the recent past because some knew not to seek help when they needed it and so had no records in the information management system used for the counts.
That, of course, merely means that District policymakers — and everyone else concerned — has a better fix on the crisis now. But not the whole of it.
Always More Homeless People Than Counted
As I usually say when citing homeless figures based on counts, they understate the number of people who have no home of their own.
This is partly because the counts must used the limited definition of “homeless” that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must use for its homeless assistance grants.
So they include homeless people in shelters, transitional housing and places “not meant for human habitation,” e.g., cars, subway stations, underpasses.
But they don’t include everyone living doubled up with friends or relatives because they can’t afford housing or those making do in cheap motels, unless they’ll become homeless, according to HUD’s definition, within two weeks.
And the counters have no way of finding them or knowing that. Nor are they likely to find everyone who’s unsheltered. The count, recall, is partly a one-night search.
And homeless people don’t all cluster together in places where they’re easily found — understandably, since the District and other communities have taken to clearing out such places and taking whatever belongings the owners can’t swiftly remove.
Many homeless people don’t want to be found for other reasons — especially those who are minors, since they’d be either returned to the homes they fled or relegated to foster care. Perhaps also parents who justifiably fear losing their children.
All the more reason the DC Council should feel an even greater sense of urgency to invest more in affordable housing, including both the permanent supportive type and locally-funded housing vouchers.
And an even greater sense of urgency to change Temporary Assistance for Needy Families policy, lest even more families become homeless by next January.