U.S. Homelessness Edged Upwards This Year, Federal Report Says

In this Sept. 14, 2018, photo, Bear La Ronge Jr., a resident of a homeless encampment, sits outside his tent as he chats with a reporter about his family plight at the homeless camp in south Minneapolis.

In this Sept. 14, 2018, photo, Bear La Ronge Jr., a resident of a homeless encampment, sits outside his tent as he chats with a reporter about his family plight at the homeless camp in south Minneapolis. AP Photo/Jim Mone

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At least one advocacy group points to housing affordability as a key factor. Also on Monday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced a high-level staff departure.

There were about 553,000 people counted as homeless across the U.S. on a single night earlier this year, a slight increase over 2017, but still 15 percent lower compared to where the figure stood just over a decade ago, according to an annual federal report released Monday.

Driving the 0.3 percent increase over last year’s count of nearly 551,000 was an uptick in the number of people experiencing “unsheltered” homelessness—a term that refers to when people are spending the night sleeping in places like the street, or a vehicle.

The number of unsheltered homeless people increased for the third year in a row to around 194,400.

Homeless families with children who were counted declined by 2.7 percent between 2017 and 2018 to around 56,300, according to the report, which was issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than 9 in 10 of the people in those families with kids were reported in sheltered locations.

Similarly, the number of homeless veterans has declined. That figure is down this year by about 48 percent compared to 2009, and by 5.4 percent between last year and this year.

HUD notes that of every 10,000 people in the U.S., 17 were homeless on a single night this year, based on the estimates in the report.

“We still have a long way to go even though there’s been significant progress,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said during a call on Monday with reporters.

Carson emphasized that efforts to address homelessness cut across levels of government.

“In the places where we're experiencing the most success we have joint operations between federal, state and local,” he said.

A chart from the HUD report shows "point-in-time" (PIT) estimate trends with homelessness in America between 2007 and 2018. Click to expand the chart in a new window. (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

The report includes figures for states and says that about half of the people included in the homelessness count this year were in one of five states—24 percent in California, 17 percent in New York, 6 percent in Florida, 5 percent in Texas and 4 percent in Washington state.

Between 2007 and 2018, New York saw the largest rise in homelessness in terms of the overall number of people counted, with an increase of 29,296, or 47 percent. Florida experienced the most significant decline based on the same measure, a decrease of 17,039 or about 35 percent.

Homelessness rates were highest this year in New York and Hawaii, where they were 46 people per 10,000. California and Oregon also had high rates, 33 and 35 people per 10,000 respectively.

A map from the HUD report shows the estimated number of homeless people by state, based on point-in-time counts from earlier this year. Click to expand the map in a new window. (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said that whenever the HUD statistics do not show declines in homelessness, it’s a disappointment. But she also stressed that there’s a growing gap between income and housing costs.

With this in mind, Roman said the report is an indication that “the homeless system is doing a good job of getting people back in housing faster, because it's very likely that more people are becoming homeless because of the increases in rents.”

"In that sense it's not good news, but it could have been worse news," she added, referring to the report.

In Roman’s view, HUD has consistently done “excellent” work, across multiple administrations, when it comes to overseeing many programs focused specifically on homelessness.

Decisions, she said, tend to be data-driven and the agency has pushed local service providers toward more “systematic” approaches for reducing homelessness, as opposed to one-off programs.

But she also says the department is falling short when it comes to affordable housing.

Roman referred to estimates suggesting there’s currently a roughly seven-million-unit shortfall in available affordable housing units in the U.S. “They have not taken much leadership on approaching this, kind of, huge problem that’s looming over all of this,” she said.

“We don’t have enough housing that’s affordable to poor people,” Roman added.

Carson said on the call with news media that HUD had been focusing on the supply of affordable housing and acknowledged it is a problem. He said that zoning regulations and other restrictions present obstacles for building affordable housing.

“We’re gonna be working with the states and local municipalities to address those kinds of issues,” the secretary added.

Figures in the HUD report are based on “one-night counts” conducted in places across the U.S. during the last 10 days of January each year. The counts involve local people going out on a given night and actually counting the number of homeless people in their community.

Norman Suchar, director of HUD’s Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs, said it’s important to look not just at point-in-time counts, but also information like a recent report with data from over the course of a year on people using short-term housing, like shelters.

The point-in-time count, however, “does give a very good snapshot of what is going on,” he said.

“It is very challenging to identify every single unsheltered person. I'm sure the communities have missed some, despite their incredible efforts,” Suchar added. “I do believe that looking at the directions and the trends tells you something very real and very important.”

He also noted that the report features the only national count of people sleeping outside in unsheltered locations.

Roman flagged a rise in the number of homeless individual adults, who are not veterans and who don’t have kids. “The individuals that don't get the specialized attention are not doing so well,” she said. “It kind of points out that that really needs to be a focus moving forward.”

HUD Staff Departures

Carson also said on the call Monday that he had accepted the resignation of HUD Deputy Secretary Pamela Patenaude, who announced plans to leave in the new year.

Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, said in a statement that she was “saddened to hear” Patenaude was departing.

She also said the departure of HUD’s assistant secretary of community planning and development, Neal Rackleff, and the sluggish confirmation of Hunter Kurtz as assistant secretary of public and Indian housing, “leave a major knowledge void at HUD." 

This, Todman added, "is deeply concerning to the housing and community development community.”

Locke Lord LLP said earlier this month that Rackleff would be rejoining the law firm in Texas as a partner in its affordable housing and community development section.

A full copy of the HUD report can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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