A Look at the New Homelessness Numbers

written by Steve Berg
December 18, 2012

On Monday, December 10, The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released national numbers from the January 2012 Point-In-Time (PIT) Counts, which give an estimate of the number of people sleeping in shelters and other housing for homeless people and also in places not meant for human habitation (aka “the streets”) at a single point in time. In this case, that point in time was mid-January, 2012.

Since a lot of people around the country are entering the final month of preparation for the 2013 PIT count, I want to start by saying that having these numbers every year has turned out to be extremely important. The enumeration is not perfect. But PIT Counts have become more rigorous over the years, and we believe they provide a reliable and worthwhile estimate. We have to thank everyone who works so hard to make these numbers as reliable as they are. The PIT numbers remind everyone that continued high unemployment leaves hundreds of thousands in shelters and on the streets every night, and that service providers and system managers around the country have worked heroically to keep the numbers from skyrocketing.

Looking at the overall PIT counts, here’s the trend in overall homelessness from 2005 to 2012:

As has been the case since the national unemployment rate skyrocketed above 7 percent in early 2009 (and over 10 percent by late 2009), the number of homeless people stayed about the same between early 2011 and early 2012. Given the continued problems with the job market and the fact that rents started to rise again in many communities that year, holding the line is a remarkable accomplishment.

Less reassuring is the fact that 2011 was the last full year when funding under the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) was available. When HPRP first passed as a three-year program, we all hoped that, by the time it expired, the economy would be in better shape. The first HPRP grants were released right around the time the national unemployment rate topped out over 10 percent, but it’s only in the last few months that it’s dropped below 8 percent. By contrast, during most of the period 2005 to early 2007 when the number of homeless people dropped so substantially, it was around 4.5 percent, “full employment” by most accounts.

Here are trends for some of the most discussed subpopulations from 2005 to 2012:

Veteran numbers only go back to 2009, the first year when HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) worked together to establish a solid methodology for including veterans in the PIT counts. The number of homeless veterans went down largely due to the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, the beginning of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, and an increasingly intense focus by VA staff in headquarters and around the country.

With the full implementation of SSVF and continuing work on effective implementation of housing and prevention strategies, this curve could move sharply downward in the next couple years, as long as implementation is strong and employment numbers continue to improve.

Chronic homelessness also declined in 2011, at a somewhat faster rate than in the previous two years. Some of this is due to HUD-VASH, since the PIT numbers for chronic homelessness include veterans experiencing chronic homelessness. Some of it is due to coming online of Continuum of Care (CoC) program-funded permanent supportive housing that Congress funded before recent fiscal tightening.

Some of the progress on ending chronic homelessness is no doubt due to communities using other resources like Section 8 to get the most vulnerable people off the street, part of the work of the 100,000 Homes campaign, and displayed in a recent report from Los Angeles showing over 2,300 chronically homeless people housed there in the most recent three months.

To end chronic homelessness by the end of 2015, the goal of the federal strategic plan, “Opening Doors,” declines like these will need to accelerate over the next few years. If communities and Congress make ending homelessness enough of a priority, that’s a possibility. If one of the results of fiscal face-offs in Congress is continued reduction in HUD funding, efforts to end chronic homelessness will be severely hampered.

For families, as for homeless people overall, the story is still one of holding the line. We’ve always known that, compared to other subpopulations, families experiencing homelessness are affected most by widespread joblessness. This is an area of particular concern for the future as well, since families overwhelmingly benefited from HPRP. If the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH) of 2009 is funded at the level Congress said it intended in the Act, families would benefit from expanded Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) funding. So far, that hasn’t happened. It will be a high priority for the Alliance in 2013.

As a final note, this is the last annual point-in-time count that will lack an overall count of youth homelessness. HUD has already issued guidance to communities that they should note the number of young people aged 18-24, as well as unaccompanied minors. This is an important step that will increase both the political pressure and the capacity to make more serious progress on ending youth homelessness.

I hope all our readers have a happy holiday season and new year. I’ll have another blog right after the first of the year, talking about some of the things we at the Alliance are resolving to do in 2013.