Progress Toward Ending Homelessness Not In Sight, New HUD Report Shows

July 10, 2011

Just finished plowing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual homelessness assessment report for 2010. Many, many figures. Many perspectives on the issues.

At the end of it all, I said to myself, Well, it could have been worse. Then, And it probably was — and very well may be even worse in the upcoming fiscal year.

The homeless situation was probably worse because the most comprehensive figures the report provides come from the point-in-time counts that Continuum of Care agencies must conduct to receive HUD grants for their homelessness programs.

As I’ve said before, the COC counts must use HUD’s restrictive definition of “homeless”. And we can hardly expect volunteers who fan out at night in the depth of winter to find all the homeless people who’ve take refuge in abandoned buildings, stairwells and other out-of-the-way places.

These, however, are consistent defects. So it seems reasonable to assume that changes in the reported PIT figures reflect actual trends.

The one-year changes HUD reports are what could have been a good deal worse.

The total number of homeless people recorded during the January 2010 PIT counts was 649,917 — a very large number, but only 6,850 more than in January 2009. This represents an increase of 1.1%.

The counts also produced only small increases in family homelessness. Just 928 — 1.2% — more homeless families than the 75,518 counted in January 2009. About 3,840 more homeless family members — an increase of 1.6%.

No one, I trust, would view any increase as a cause for celebration. Such small upticks, however, are rather surprising in light of the continuing impacts of the recession — foreclosures, job losses, related increases in severe housing cost burdens, etc.

More troubling, I think, are where the homeless people were counted. Only 52% of single homeless individuals were in emergency shelters or transitional housing. The remaining 48% were on the streets or in some other place “not meant for human habitation.”

More than 21% of homeless families were also unsheltered — 2.8% more than in 2009.

We don’t know how many of these unsheltered families had children — or how many children had no roof over their heads. We do know, however, that the majority of homeless families consist of a mother and two young children.

Also that the face of homelessness is changing. Since 2007, the number of homeless people in families has increased by 20%, while the number of “chronically homeless” individuals has decreased by 11%.

The latter are the people whom policymakers have focused on — individuals with disabilities, including mental illness and/or substance abuse problems, who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently.

Permanent supportive housing was initially designed for them. It’s now, HUD says, the single largest part of the homeless housing inventory, providing beds not only for chronically homeless individuals but others, including homeless people in families.

HUD is undoubtedly right in saying that PSH growth probably accounts, at least in part, for the drop in the number of chronically homeless individuals. Without it, the homeless family numbers would probably have been larger too.

But PSH programs cost money to develop and money to sustain. And Congress seems hardly in the mood to provide more for local communities that are struggling with their own revenue constraints.

One reason things could get worse by the time the next homeless count rolls round.

The other reason is that COCs will have exhausted their share of the $1.5 billion in temporary funding for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing that was part of the economic recovery act.

These funds, HUD says, also help account for last year’s relatively small increases in homelessness.

In 2010, 690,264 people, including children, got some form of assistance under HPRP. HUD reports that at least 87.8% of them found a “permanent housing destination.”* For most, this was a rental unit.

But more than 67% of the adult program leavers had monthly cash incomes of $1,000 or less. And whatever housing subsidy they got is necessarily temporary. What will keep them from joining — or rejoining — the homeless population?

For some, accommodations in PSH. For the greater number, housing vouchers and/or other affordable housing arrangements.

Which brings us back to the funding issue.

The House Appropriations Transportation/HUD Subcommittee is still working on program funding levels for Fiscal Year 2012. It’s been told to produce a bill costing $7.7 billion less than this fiscal year’s total.

This hardly augurs well for local homelessness prevention programs or the diverse programs that will probably face the need to shelter and house some 1.9 million homeless adults and children, as they did in 2010.

* Some HPRP grantees failed to report outcomes for everyone who’d received assistance. Of those whose “exits” were reported, 94% had a “permanent housing destination.” As I indicate, how permanent is an open question.

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More Grim News About The Affordable Housing Crunch

September 26, 2010

Shortly before the Census Bureau issued its new poverty/income report, the Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released figures from their latest housing survey. Bad news about the affordability of rental housing, especially for households below the federal poverty line.

In 2009, about 18.6 million renter households paid 30% or more of their current income for rent,* i.e., at or above the HUD cutoff for affordability. That’s 52.6% of all renter households. Close to a third paid at least half their current income for rent, aptly characterized by HUD as a “severe rent burden.”

As we’d expect, housing costs were a greater challenge for low-income households. About 73% of them — 6.8 million households — paid at least 30% of their current income for rent. Rent consumed half or more of all current income for 5.6 million households — just under 60%.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the severe rent burden figure for low-income households represents a 17% increase since 2007 — 800,000 more households in just two years. Compared to 2003, the increase is a whopping 45% or 1.7 million more households.

These figures reflect at least four converging factors.

One is the continuing shrinkage of affordable housing stock. Earlier this year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that 6.3% of affordable units had been lost between 2001 and 2007.

Shrinkage in the District of Columbia has been more dramatic — more than a third of low-cost rental units lost during about the same time period.

Two other factors are both impacts of the recession. One, of course, is the prodigious number of jobs losses, which have left many households with less or no current income. What might have been affordable for them a couple of years ago now leaves them without enough ready cash for basic needs.

The other, related impact is foreclosures, which have increased competition for the limited number of moderate and low-cost rental units available. CBPP reports a nationwide 11.3% increase in rental costs since 2006. The old law of supply and demand at work.

A fourth major factor is government housing policies. At the federal level, rental assistance for low-income families has failed to keep pace with rising needs. Last year, CBPP reported that total funding for low-income housing programs in 2008 was $2 billion (5%) less than in 2004.

For 2009, Congress appropriated several hundred million dollars less for housing vouchers than agencies would have been eligible for if allocations been based on use and costs — this notwithstanding enormous waiting lists and rising rents.

CBPP estimates that funding for the current fiscal year is just about enough to renew all the vouchers families were using in 2009. The same is true for the President’s proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget, though it would also provide funding for about 10,000 new vouchers for people with disabilities and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

So we’re looking here at about 2.2 million vouchers, assuming (as we shouldn’t) that Congress goes along. That would leave an enormous gap between families in need of housing assistance and the help the federal government will provide.

Here in the District, the waiting list for affordable housing has reportedly grown to more than 26,000 households. The Fiscal Year 2011 budget will provide local funding for about 80 more units. Not a penny more for the tenant-based vouchers that allow households to live in apartments with market-based rents.

Even in better times, the District never came close to the targets or funding levels recommended by the Comprehensive Housing Task Force — a diverse group of experts commissioned to produce a long-range housing strategy for “an inclusive city.”

So the Census/HUD figures aren’t just a recession-caused blip. They’re the cumulative results of long-standing failures to give affordable housing the priority it deserves.

* The survey figures include households that reported paying 100% or more of current income for rent. The spreadsheets note that these may reflect a temporary situation, living off savings or a response error. I have followed CBPP in including them in my calculations.


Most Homeless Families Still Won’t Count Under HEARTH Act

April 27, 2009

Congress will try again this year to pass the HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act. The act will reauthorize the programs that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administers under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

These programs are the main source of federal support for local programs that provide emergency shelter, longer-term housing and supportive services for homeless people and services to prevent homelessness.

One of the most important issues for Congress to resolve is who should be considered homeless for the purposes of HUD-funded programs and services. As I’ve written before, HUD currently uses a highly restrictive definition that excludes large groups of homeless individuals and families.

First the good news. The bills introduced in the Senate (S. 808) and the House (HR. 1877) would expand the general definition of “homeless.”

For example, individuals and families would become eligible for assistance funded under HUD’s Continuum of Care programs if they “will imminently lose their housing” and have no place to go or immediate prospects for securing permanent housing.

Also eligible for the first time would be families with children and unaccompanied youth who are defined as homeless in other federal laws, have a history of unstable housing situations and are likely to continue having difficulties due to any one of a number of specified reasons.

Now the not-good news. The definition still excludes numerous homeless individuals and families. For example:

  • Families living in motels or hotels simply because they can’t afford to rent an apartment.
  • Families who are doubled up with friends or relatives, again simply because they can’t afford a place of their own.
  • Individuals and couples without children in either of these situations.
  • Youth who’ve recently fled their homes because of domestic violence or abuse.
  • Individuals who are being discharged from a mental hospital, jail or other institution but who didn’t formerly live in a shelter or “place not meant for human habitation.”

Moreover, most local programs would be able to use only 10% of their COC funds for the families with children and unaccompanied youth who would become officially homeless under the new definition. So the programs would still be skewed toward people who fit the old even more restrictive definition.

And now the bad news. Buried in the legislation is a provision that effectively allows local communities to continue ignoring most of the newly-recognized homeless individuals and families in their annual homeless counts. All they’ll have to do is begin counting individuals leaving institutions after some former stint in a shelter or on the streets.

So we will won’t know how many homeless people there are–not even close.

And if we don’t know this, how will we know if the HEARTH Act is working? The answer is, We won’t.


Getting Homeless Children Counted

February 2, 2009

I recently wrote about how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “homeless” excludes large groups of homeless individuals and families from the annual homeless count.

A comment from Joni called attention to another excluded group–“couch surfers,” i.e., young people who are on their own and moving from one friend or relative’s home to another. Thanks again, Joni!

Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) has introduced a bill that would expand the definition of “homeless” to include not only “couch surfers,” but many other children and youth who are homeless but not counted now. It’s the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2009 (H.R. 29).

H.R. 29 would amend the current general definition of “homeless individual” in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to include children and youth who are verified as homeless by administrators of any one of four federally-funded programs.

Basically, children would still count as homeless if they were in emergency shelters, transitional housing or places not meant from human habitation, e.g., cars, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations.

But they would also count if they were:

  • Sharing the housing of someone else because they’d lost their home
  • Living in a motel, hotel, trailer park or camping ground “due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations”
  • On their own, in any of these situations, because they’d run away from home or been thrown out
  • Abandoned in a hospital
  • Awaiting foster care placement

This worthy bill currently has four co-sponsors. It will need a lot more to get on the agendas of the committees it’s been referred to, let alone a vote on the House floor.

HEAR US has launched a grassroots campaign to gain co-sponsors. Its blog has a downloadable, attention-grabbing form we can fax to our Representatives.

We can also call or send them an e-mail. Contact information (both phone and fax numbers) and e-mail forms are on their websites. Sites can be easily accessed from the home page of the House site.