DC Homeless Count Shows Some Progress, Still Big Unmet Needs

May 13, 2015

On a single night late last January, nearly 7,300 people were counted as homeless in the District of Columbia, according to the Metropolitan Council of Government’s just-released report. Nearly half of them were adults and children together as families.

Both these figures are moderately lower than those reported for 2014. But over the longer haul, we see an upward trend in the homeless total, driven entirely by the sharp spike in family homelessness.

Nearly Twice as Many Homeless Families as in 2008

The count identified 1,131 homeless families, i.e. those in shelters or transitional housing. None reported on the streets, in bus stations or other places “not meant for human habitation.” And as I say virtually every time I report count figures, they don’t include nearly all families (or individuals) without a home of their own.

The latest family total is 100 fewer than in January 2014. But it’s nearly double the number counted in 2008, when the recession had just set in. Looked at another way, family homelessness has increased by well over 92%, despite the 2014 dip down.

High Percent of Homeless Families With Very Young Parents

The MCOG report includes a first-time-ever breakout of “transition age youth,” i.e., 18-24 year olds. For this we can thank the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets the data collection rules.

Here in the District, the count identified 1,103 TAY — all but 193 of them in families, i.e., as parents who had at least one child with them, but no parent or guardian of their own in the group. This means that nearly 64% of all adults in families counted were in their late teens or early twenties.

Now, this doesn’t mean that such a large percent of all homeless young adults in the District were parents who had babies and/or toddlers to tend and, insofar as they could, protect.

Far more single, i.e., lone, TAY than counted had probably found friends or relatives to give them a temporary alternative to the streets or the nasty singles shelters. It’s obviously one thing to let a young person sleep on your couch. Quite another to bring a mom and her newborn or understandably fretful two-year-old into your home.

It’s also likely that many single TAY who had no shelter of any sort didn’t get counted because unaccompanied youth generally don’t spend their nights where they’re reasonably easy to find — and often won’t admit they’re homeless when found.

The high percent of youth-headed homeless families is nonetheless striking. The TAY count isn’t the only indicator. MCOG, relying on facts and figures from last year’s count, says the median age for homeless D.C. adults in families is 25.

Fewer Homeless Singles, But More Unsheltered

The latest count found 3,821 homeless single adults, i.e., those who didn’t have children with them and thus didn’t qualify as family members, though some undoubtedly had spouses or partners sharing their plight.

The new figure is a tad lower than last year’s, which was somewhat higher than the figure for 2013. We don’t see a clear long-term trend. The latest figure, however, represents a decrease of about 9.2%, as compared to 2008.

Though the vast majority of homeless singles were in shelters or transitional housing, 544 were exposed to the elements or spending their nights in cars, vacant buildings, stairwells and the like. The unsheltered figure is nearly 150 higher than last year’s — and even a bit higher than in 2008.

With such (happily) small numbers, it’s hard to know whether we’re seeing a real uptick or merely the results of a more effective count. The District’s chapter in the MCOG report suggests the latter.

Fewer Chronically Homeless Residents

We do see what seems a genuine downward trend in the number of homeless singles identified as chronically homeless, i.e., those who’d been homeless for quite a long time or recurrently and had at least one disabling condition.

The January count found 1,593 of these singles — only 16 fewer than in 2014. But it’s the fifth year the number dropped, making for a 27% decrease since 2008.

The count also found fewer chronically homeless families, i.e. those in which at least one adult met the HUD definition I’ve linked to above. The latest figure — 66 — represents a marked drop from 2014, but that was a marked increase over 2013.

MCOG didn’t start reporting chronically homeless families as a separate group until 2011, presumably because HUD didn’t require grantees to do so. Looking back as far as we can then, we see a decrease of roughly 51%.

More Residents Not Homeless Because of Permanent Supportive Housing

Singles and families living in permanent supportive housing are rightly not counted as homeless, though most probably would be without PSH. They are, however, accounted for in the MCOG report and its members’ reports to HUD.

And here’s where we see the explanation for the relatively low chronically homeless figures, especially for singles. In January, 4,230 singles were living in PSH units in the Distric — an increase of 730 over 2014. This represents a whopping 115.5% increase since 2008.

We also find more families who’d like as not have been chronically homeless were it not for PSH. The District reported 1,128 of them, somewhat over three times as many as in 2008.

Not Just More Data Points

At this very moment, the DC Council is chewing over the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Both the progress and the challenges the new count indicates should persuade it to support her proposed investments in both homeless services and affordable housing, including PSH — indeed, to make at least some of them bigger.

And I, getting back on my hobbyhorse, see yet further justification for her proposal to extend a lifeline, though thin to the 6,300 families who’ll otherwise lose what remains of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

If they’re not already homeless, they’re likely to be. And as things stand now, a goodly number will have to fend for themselves until the next severe cold snap because the Mayor’s budget won’t cover the costs of sheltering all with no safe place to stay when the multifarious harms they’re exposed to don’t include the risk of freezing to death.

Like I said, some bigger investments needed.

 

 

 


HUD Reports Dropping Homelessness Rates

December 13, 2012

As you may have read, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has released the nationwide results of last January’s point-in-time counts — the one-night census of homeless people that HUD requires of all its homeless assistance grant recipients.

The headlined news is that homelessness seems to be “holding steady,” as HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan puts it.

The bigger news, I think, is that homelessness rates are apparently lower than they were in 2007. This is true not only for the grand total, but for all the specific groups in the required PIT breakouts.

Some of the long-range percentage declines are so counterintuitive as to make me wonder whether we’re getting a true read or results of some unaccounted for changes in methodology.

After all, we’ve had a major recession, with lingering consequences. Nearly four million homes lost due to foreclosures.

About 4.1 million jobs lost that haven’t been replaced. A record high number of long-term jobless workers. Other labor market woes as well.

On the other hand, we do have some progress that’s fairly easy to explain. So within the definitional limits of the PIT counts maybe the rest is real too.

In any event, here are the key figures.

According to the PIT counts, the total number of people who were homeless during some night in late January was 633,782.

This is a fraction of a percent fewer than reported the year before. The number is 5.8% lower than for January 2007. In other words, 38,106 fewer literally homeless people.

The number of homeless individuals, i.e., not with a family member, ticked down 1.4% to 394,379. In January 2007, there were 6.8% — 28,998 — more of them.

The number of homeless people in families* rose by 1.4%, to 239,403. But the number of homeless families was basically the same as in 2011 — 77,157.

As compared to January 2007, there were 3.7% fewer homeless people in families and 8% fewer homeless families. These percents translate into 9,108 fewer homeless family members and 6,778 fewer homeless families.

We see larger drops in two populations that HUD — and more recently, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — have made top priorities.

The number of chronically homeless individuals** declined 6.8%, to 99,894. There were 19.3% — 23,939 — more people classified as chronically homeless in January 2007.

It seems reasonable to suppose that these figures reflect increases in permanent supportive housing — a strategy designed for chronically homeless people that’s strongly encouraged by the structure of HUD’s assistance programs, as well as a number of research and advocacy organizations.

Federal policies also account for much, if not all of the reported progress toward the goal of ending veterans’ homelessness.

According to the latest PIT counts, the number of homeless veterans declined 7.2%, to 62,619. This is 17.2% fewer than in 2009, the baseline year for this population.

The big factor here is the HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) voucher program, which has reportedly supported permanent housing, plus supportive services for more than 42,000 veterans since the program started in 2008.

An additional factor I’d guess is that the VA side of the funding can also be used to prevent veterans from becoming homeless, e.g., by paying some one-time costs of moving to housing they can afford.

In this respect, it’s somewhat like the broader Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program that was part of the Recovery Act.

HUD gives HPRP part of the credit for the just-reported homelessness decreases. And it does seem likely that the short-term help the program funded was enough for people who’d suffered temporary setbacks.

And now what? Communities had only three years to spend their HPRP grants. So they’ll have no money from that pot in the coming year — and even in the best of cases, no boost in their basic homeless assistance grants to cover the loss.

They’d share a loss of about $180 million if the “fiscal cliff” negotiations don’t halt the impending across-the-board cuts.

And there’d be lots more homeless people in want of help — more than 282,000 additional households, according to one estimate.

In short, such genuine progress as there’s been could be short-lived.

* These are only people “who are homeless as part of households that have at least one adult and one child.”

** By HUD’s definition, these are people who have a disability, including a mental illness and/or substance abuse problem, and who’ve been homeless for at least a year or at least four times in the last three years.


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