Later this month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will conduct its yearly Point-in-Time count to determine how many Americans are homeless on a single night. The most recent count found 610,042 people experiencing homelessness on that night in January 2013, four percent fewer than in 2012.
This decline was widespread. Overall homelessness decreased by 9 percent between 2012 and 2013, and is down among all reported subpopulations. The number of military veterans experiencing homelessness decreased by eight percent, from 62,619 to 57,849, and the number of homeless families decreased by eight percent, from 77,157 to 70,960. These figures continue a downward trend that has been apparent since 2007, the first year with reliable national data.
The decline in homelessness despite the housing crisis, the Great Recession, sequestration, and a weak recovery is regarded as a “public policy triumph,” and the fanfare is warranted. Opening Doors, the first national plan to prevent and end homelessness, has helped sharpen focus and increase accountability among federal agencies. The Housing First model, which prioritizes immediate placement into permanent housing instead of making housing contingent upon substance abuse treatment, sobriety, or other milestones, has emerged as a best practice for ending homelessness for even the hardest cases.
Supportive housing for those facing challenges like mental illness, addiction, and HIV/AIDS has become more widely available since 2007. Congress has funded more than 50,000 new HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing units for veterans since 2008 and created the Supportive Services for Veteran Families, a $300 million annual homeless prevention and rapid re-housing program.
These policies have focused primarily on veterans and the chronically homeless, people with disabilities that have been homeless a year or more or four or more times in the last three years, nearly all of whom are individuals. So it is more difficult to explain the decline in family homelessness, particularly since the affordable housing crisis has gotten worse.
Congress has not authorized significant new investment in family homelessness programs since 2011. That year, the number of families with worst-case needs— that is, paying more than half their income on rent or living in severely inadequate housing—reached 8.5 million, up 44 percent from 2007. And 21.8 million households were living “doubled up” with family and friends, an 11-percent jump from 2007. The Department of Education’s report on homeless students, which, unlike HUD’s figures, includes doubling up, reported 1.1 million homeless students using public schools in the 2011-2012 school year, a 72 percent increase from pre-recession levels.
Meanwhile, rental assistance, one of the best antidotes to homelessness, has become scarcer because of sequestration.
But a few factors may help explain the decline.
First, the stimulus-funded Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program expired in 2012. The three-year, $1.5 billion program provided assistance to more than a million people, and helped prevent homelessness from surging following the recession. But it has not been replaced by any new federal prevention or rapid re-housing program of a similar size.
Secondly, some programs that provide temporary rental assistance for homeless families have been re-classified from transitional housing programs to rapid re-housing programs. Because families receiving rapid re-housing assistance are living in their own homes and can continue living there after program assistance ends, HUD does not consider them homeless and they are not counted as such. It is unknown how many families were affected by this re-classification, but communities did report 11,860 fewer transitional housing beds in 2013 than in 2012.
Finally, the count of homeless families and, by extension, the accuracy of that count, is constrained by the availability of shelter. Families are much less likely than individuals to sleep on the streets, even under the most dire circumstances. Only a handful of areas, including the state of Massachusetts; New York City; Hennepin County, MN; Columbus, OH, Montgomery County, MD, and Washington, DC (during hypothermia season), guarantee homeless families a right to shelter. Since 2007, the number of homeless families in these right-to-shelter areas has increased 34 percent. In the rest of the country it has decreased by 24 percent.
This decline does not necessarily reflect a reduced need for shelter. The 2013 U.S. Conference of Mayors Report on Hunger and Homelessness found that in 17 of the 21 cities included in its survey, emergency shelters had to turn away families with children because there were no available beds. So, paradoxically, unless they happen to be outside during an annual Point-in-Time count, families who are turned away from a shelter are denied not only a bed but inclusion in official statistics.
There are many reasons to cheer the steady decline in chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans. However, the reported decrease in family homelessness appears to underestimate the need for shelter in many communities. The solution is not necessarily to build more shelters, but to build more affordable housing and make it more accessible for families that are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Chart by Tim Meko, Urban Institute