The State of Homelessness

16th April
written by Pete Witte

Map of Washington, D.C. Metro Area Homelessness, 2011Renowned urban thinker Anthony Downs wrote: “No jurisdiction is an island. Every suburb is linked to its central city and to other suburbs.” But intra-regional social and economic dynamics can sometimes make it appear as though there are actual oceans separating jurisdictional boundaries. The intra-regional social dynamic of homelessness is no exception.

Are there actually homelessness disparities within a region? If so, how large? I examine these questions in this article using the specific case of the national capital region.

But first, some background.

In The State of Homelessness in America 2012 (SOH12), we included an appendix with 2011 homelessness data for the 100 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), as measured at a point-in-time. This includes data on nearly all of the metro areas in the country with populations over 500,000 people. Homeless point-in-time counts are reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at the geographic level known as the Continuum of Care (CoC), which is a local planning network designed to facilitate and encourage coordination of local efforts to address housing and homeless assistance. These CoC boundary lines are organized based on numerous local decisions of which the primary consideration should be to design a system that will most effectively meet the needs of the homeless population.

CoC boundaries may or may not reflect other demographic patterns or economic realities that shape how people interact in the physical environment. MSA boundaries, on the other hand, are determined by commuting to work/employment patterns and, therefore, are more likely to reflect the full human ecosystem. But the truth about MSA boundaries is that they are not representative of an incorporated jurisdiction, like a city or a town. Instead, MSAs are simply a statistical measurement instrument used by the U.S. Census and researchers alike to more effectively comprehend regions.

I’m going a long way to describe CoC and MSA boundaries here for two reasons. The first reason is so that I can say that coming up with estimates for metro areas required some spatial analysis work of matching CoC with MSA boundaries since point-in-time counts data are only reported at the geography of the CoC.

But the other reason I expounded on and on about the geography of the data was to show the value of work that derives estimates for metro area homelessness. And the value is that with such data we can have a more nuanced picture of the regional shape of homelessness in any particular metro area, especially when we take into account other factors, such as the general population. By taking population into account, we can look at rates of homelessness and make comparisons. More specifically, we can identify geographic disproportionality by comparing the rate of a single CoC to the rate of the whole MSA, or the rate between CoCs within an MSA. [1]

Data on the Washington metro area homeless population show that an estimated 13,205 people were homeless at a point-in-time in 2011, which ranks the area as the 8th highest total homeless population in the country. The area’s homelessness rate is 24 homeless people per 10,000 in the general population (~5.5 million people). Though ranking in nationally at number 8 in overall homeless population, D.C.’s homeless rate ranks as the 21st highest in the country. D.C.’s rate is lower than many major metropolitan areas, including Boston (ranked 20th), New York (13th), San Francisco/Oakland (12th), Los Angeles (6th), New Orleans (2nd), and Tampa/St. Petersburg (1st).

The more interesting data on Washington metro area homelessness, I believe, are found when you look at the geographic distribution of the population in the region (see the map above and table below). Nearly half of the metro area’s homeless population lives in the District of Columbia. Fairfax-Falls Church has 12 percent of the population, followed by Montgomery County (9 percent) and Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties (9 percent). Prince George’s County is the only other jurisdiction with at least 5 percent of the metro area’s total population. The remaining 15 percent of the population lives in the 6 other CoCs.

But when you take the general population data into account and look at rates of homelessness within the metro area, you can see the disproportionality among the jurisdictions. Four of the eleven CoCs in the Washington metro area have rates of homelessness that are higher than the national rate of 21 per 10,000. These four CoCs are: Arlington (22 per 10,000); Alexandria (30); Charles, Calvert, and St. Mary’s Counties (34); and the District of Columbia (109), which has a rate over 4 times that of the region as a whole and more than 5 times that of the nation as a whole.

The jurisdictions with the three lowest rates of homelessness in the region are: Prince George’s County (9 per 10,000); Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania and Stafford Counties (7); and Loudon County (5).

There are certainly a number of regional and CoC-level dynamics that account for the variation in the rates of homelessness in the Washington metro area—such as differences in housing affordability, jobs, etc.—but one thing that’s clear is that there is significant variation in the available data.

[1] One thing to note about the analysis of all the jurisdictional variation is that when making comparisons across CoCs, caution should be used as jurisdictions’ methodologies for estimating their population counts do vary. But, still, the rates of the point-in-time counts of people experiencing homelessness do provide us with a method for making reasonable comparisons.

28th February
written by Pete Witte

Hello fellow homeless advocates, policy wonks, and friends of data!

It’s been just over a month since the Alliance released The State of Homelessness in America 2012 and in that time the report has been picked up by numerous national and local media sources.

The report’s one-sentence take-away—that homelessness has decreased by one percent nationally from 2009 to 2011 and that this decrease is in large part explained by HPRP, a program funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—has been the main story line in many of the media articles.

While the national decrease and the reason behind the decrease in homelessness are in the headlines for a reason, I thought it’d be useful to spend some time pointing out some of the data nuggets that you may have overlooked when you paged through the report last month. (And if you haven’t taken a look at the report yet, knock yourself out.)

Today’s data nugget: Homelessness in Metro Areas.

Homelessness in America is disproportionately found at higher rates in metropolitan areas of the country. Nearly 70 percent of the homeless population lives in the 100 largest metro areas, while a comparatively smaller percentage of the general population lives in these areas (65 percent). In Appendix One of the report, overall homeless population data are provided for the 100 largest metropolitan areas for the year 2011. In addition to a look at how many people are homeless in a given metro area at a point-in-time, homelessness rates were calculated.

For this blog post, I put together a “top 20 list” of metro areas with the highest rates of homelessness. While places such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle are each on the short list, none are at the top.

The five metro areas with highest rates of homelessness belong to (1) Tampa, FL, (2) New Orleans, LA, (3) Fresno, CA, (4) Las Vegas, NV, and (5) Honolulu, HI. All of the top five metro areas have rates that are more than twice as high as the U.S. rate of 21 people per 10,000 in the general population.

You might be surprised to see some of the other areas that made the short list and some that are noticeably absent. One notable trend is that among the top 20 list there is not a single metro area from the Census Bureau’s Midwest region (i.e. not Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, etc.).

Take a look at the table below for a list of the 20 highest rates of homelessness. If you have any thoughts about the list or want to know more, let us know in the comments and I’ll try to respond to you as soon as I can.

Metropolitan Areas with the Highest Rates of Homelessness, 2011

Source: HRI calculations based on data from HUD and 2010 ACS 1-Year files.
Rate of Homelessness is x homeless people for every 10,000 in the general population.

2nd February
written by Catherine An

It’s been all over the news.

A few days ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that he wasn’t concerned about the very poor because we have a social safety net – and, when prodded, he said he would mend the safety net if necessary.

The candidate has been hounded by news outlets since the misstep. The Daily Beast, the Washington Post, and the TakeAway have all pointed out that the Romney should, in fact, show concern for the [growing] very poor population in America. The New York Times even ran an editorial on “the darkening tone of the primaries,” specifically citing this gaffe.

Needless to say, we here at the Alliance are very concerned about the very poor.

As has been widely reported, a full 15 percent of Americans live below the poverty line (which is $18,530 for a family of three) and 6.7 percent of Americans live in deep poverty (defined as half the poverty line.)  Half of all Americans are either poor or low-income, living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

While the last few years have, as the candidate notes, been hard for middle-class Americans, it has been a troublesome time for low-income and poor Americans as well. Recessionary times can be especially difficult for those households with little to no financial resources who suffer the same challenges as middle-income Americans including unemployment and housing crises. Unlike middle-income Americans, however, low-income and poor Americans often do not have the resources to buttress or recover from such economic hurdles. Without substantial savings or other assets, these hurdles can leave low-income and poor households facing very difficult circumstances, even homelessness.

This can be seen in our latest report, The State of Homelessness in America 2012. Severe housing cost burden for poor households* rose 6 percent from 2009 to 2010 (as it has steadily for decades) and the number of people living doubled increased by 13 percent**. While overall homelessness in the country stayed fairly steady between 2009 and 2011, the indicators associated with homelessness – including unemployment, poverty, housing burden, and the like – paint a picture of a low-income and poor community in need of – at the very least – concern.

*severe housing cost burden is defined as households paying 50 percent of more of their monthly income on housing.
**”doubled up” refers to a low-income individual or member of a family who is living with friends, extended family, or other non-relatives due to economic hardship.

23rd January
written by Catherine An

On Wednesday, January 18, the Alliance released The State of Homelessness in America 2012. The second in a series, this year’s report finds that the slight decrease in homelessness between 2009 and 2011 can be largely attributed to the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), the stimulus-funded program aimed at curbing homelessness resulting from the recession. Moreover, the report found that indicators associated with homelessness, including severe housing cost burden and doubled up households, increased.

The story is basically this: homelessness is down mainly because of HPRP, and risk of homelessness still looms as HPRP funds diminish and risk indicators rise.

A breakdown of major findings:

  • The nation’s homeless population decreased 1 percent, or by about 7,000 people between 2009 and 2011; it went from 643,067 (2009) to 636,017 (2011). Most of the examined subpopulations, including families, chronically homeless people, and individuals, experienced a decrease in population. The only increase was among people who were unsheltered.
  • The largest decrease was among homeless veterans, whose population declined 11 percent. The number of homeless veterans went from 75,609 in 2009 to 67,495 in 2011, a reduction of about 8,000.
  • Chronic homelessness decreased by 3 percent from 110,911 in 2009 to 107,148 in 2011. The chronically homeless population has decreased by 13 percent since 2007. The decrease is associated with an increase in the number of permanent supportive housing units from 188,636 in 2007 to 266,968 in 2011. Permanent supportive housing ends chronic homelessness.
  • The number of poor households that spent more than 50 percent of their incomes on rent – defined by HUD as households that are “severely housing cost burdened” – increased by 6 percent from 5.9 million in 2009 to 6.2 million in 2010. Three-quarters of all poor renter households had severe housing cost burdens.
  • The “doubled up” population (people who live with friends, family or other nonrelatives for economic reasons) increased by 13 percent from 6 million in 2009 to 6.8 million in 2010. The doubled up population increased by more than 50 percent from 2005 to 2010.

So the work ahead is far from done. The heartening decrease in homelessness, especially in the face of a recession, indicates that the federal intervention to curb and prevent homelessness did what it was supposed to do. But now, as HPRP ends and budgets grow tighter and tighter across all levels of government, people are left still at risk and soon without resources. Without intervention, homelessness could rise in the years to come, as we’ve predicted.

Tell us what’s happening in your neighborhood and if these findings are true for you.

The State of Homelessness can be found on Alliance website:

27th April
written by Pete Witte

Today’s guest post comes to us from Pete Witte, research associate at the Alliance.

I wasn’t surprised while reading the recent report, America’s Rental Housing: Meeting Challenges, Building on Opportunities, by the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) of Harvard University. Among other things, the paper points out that there is a substantial—and growing—gap between the number of very low-income renters and available affordable rental units. But though the report is unsurprising, it’s disconcerting nonetheless.

In the State of Homelessness, we found that from 2008 to 2009, the number of poor, severely housing cost burdened renter households increased by 9 percent to nearly 5.9 million households nationally (severe housing cost burden = households paying 50 percent of their monthly income or more on rent). Families are finding it difficult to afford rents and the recent JCHS paper points out that, in part, rents are rising due to a lack of supply and increasing demand.

These factors reveal that there are more and more people at increased risk of homelessness When households pay such a great majority of their monthly income on rent (50 percent or more, in the case of severely housing cost burdened households), they have little money left over for other expenses, including transportation, healthcare, education, and food. The scarcity of resources means that that any unforeseen financial hurdle – a large bill, car breakdown, hospitalization – could jeopardize the household’s housing situation.

The JCHS paper also predicts that “Given the long lead times needed to develop new multifamily housing, a sharp increase in demand could quickly reduce vacancy rates and put upward pressure on rents.” The authors call the growing problem an “affordability crisis.”

And I agree.

As the U.S. population continues to grow, so will the number of renter households. JCHS estimates that growth of renter households could number as many as 470,000 annually. How many of these new renter households will be severely housing cost burdened? Will the affordable housing supply gap continue to grow? How many people will find themselves doubled up or in shelters because they can’t find or keep housing that they can afford?

Solving the problem of creating more affordable housing is not an easy one. I can tell you that from my past experiences, when I worked as an urban planner, the question of how to increase the level of affordable units in any particular community is always challenging to answer.

JCHS mentions that one solution is through policy. Public policy can encourage the expansion of affordable housing stock by using tax and regulation breaks to encourage investments in affordable housing. Providing incentives for including affordable units in new development is a practice that a number of communities (for example, locally in Montgomery County, Maryland), and I think this is one way to help keep the gap from growing.

Policymakers could also further invest in housing vouchers. JCHS points out that only 1 in 4 of the lowest-income renters eligible for housing assistance are provided federally assisted housing. Clearly, providing financial assistance in the form of vouchers would go a long way toward closing the affordability gap. And since people with vouchers do not become homeless, we know that vouchers also will also help end homelessness.(The Alliance produced an eviction prevention series highlighting the utility of vouchers earlier this month.)

We want to know what’s happening in the field! Are you experiencing a rise in rental prices? Do you think housing vouchers can make a difference? Are you concerned with the growing dearth of housing affordable to low-income people and families? Let us know in the comments.

25th April
written by naehblog

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released national data showing that the number of homeless people was essentially unchanged from 2009 to 2010.

The number, based on counts conducted by localities and states across the nation in January 2010 (called point-in-time counts), increased one percent, rising from 643,067 to 649,879. There was a three percent increase in the number of homeless people who were unsheltered and a 1.5 percent increase among families experiencing homelessness. Chronic homelessness declined by 1 percent, continuing a downward trend begun in 2005.

The 2010 PIT counts were the first to reflect the impact of the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), the $1.5 billion stimulus-funded program aimed at curbing homelessness resulting from the recession. Housing inventory data released in conjunction with the PIT counts showed that, at the time of the 2010 PIT counts, the stimulus program was funding 19,842 homeless assistance beds.

In 2009, the Alliance projected that without effective intervention, homelessness would increase dramatically as a result of the recession. These numbers show that our investment in homelessness prevention and housing-based strategies averted what could have been an alarming increase in the number of Americans experiencing homelessness, according the to Alliance.

Still, the recessions’ full impact on homelessness has yet to be seen. In 2010 the Alliance report The State of Homelessness in America noted that certain key economic factors associated with homelessness were on the rise. These included the number of poor households doubling up, unemployment, and severe housing cost burden. Homelessness is a lagging indicator of economic tides and although the HPRP funds will be available to communities for another year, upward pressures on homelessness will also continue.

To access the 2010 HUD PIT counts data, please visit their website (PDF). You can look up state-by-state numbers here.

You can also find our press release on our website.

Image courtesy of Jenny Leigh.

20th April
written by Catherine An

In The State of Homelessness report, Alliance research staff examined some of the economic indicators of homelessness, including severe housing cost burden, real income, unemployment, and foreclosure.

A report authored by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) – called Dark Before the Storm echoes some of the findings of The State of Homelessness report, specifically as it pertains to severe housing cost burden.

Using the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS) data, made available by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), researchers at the NLIHC examine housing affordability for low-income (LI), very low-income (VLI) and extremely low-income (ELI) renters. What they find is that, even before the recession began, these low income populations were experiencing a pronounced shortage of affordable housing only exacerbated by the recession.

Some of the report’s key findings:

  • 63 percent of ELI renters and 28 percent of VLI renters paid more than half their monthly income on rent and utilities (paying more than half of monthly income on rent is characterized as “severe housing cost burden”).
  • In ten states, 65 percent or more of ELI renters experienced severe housing cost burden.
  • The West was the most difficult region for ELI renters to find affordable housing; 10 of the 13 states in the West had fewer than 35 affordable and available units for every 100 ELI renter households.

The report also suggests that housing affordability problems climbed the income ladder in the years before the recession, affecting VLI and low-income households at higher-than-usual rates in addition to ELI renters more commonly affected by housing unaffordability.

People experiencing severe housing cost burden or other housing problems are at increased risk of experiencing homelessness. When such a significant proportion of monthly income is dedicated to rent, there are few resources left for transportation, health care, education, and other necessities. Moreover, such a scarcity of resources leaves people with few options should they have unexpected financial obstacles.

The solution is more available, affordable housing. These economic trends suggest that more people have become low income renters and the demand for affordable rental housing will continue to rise. There is, however, no indication that the supply of long term affordable rental housing will meet this rising demand…”, according to NLIHC.

As colleagues in the homeless assistance community, we agree with our friends at NLIHC. If homelessness is the result of a lack of affordable, permanent housing, the solution to homelessness is the procurement of affordable, permanent housing (it sounds obvious but often isn’t).

You can find the full NLIHC report, The Dark Before the Storm one their website and you can find our own State of Homelessness report on our website along with accompanying tools and maps.

Let us know: do you know people struggling to afford stable housing? Are rents rising in your community? Do you think it’s time for a concerted, national investment in affordable housing? We want to hear from you!

4th April
written by naehblog

Today’s post comes from the Director of the Homelessness Research Institute, Bill Sermons.

As a researcher, my work can be boiled down to a combination of sharing what I know and learning new things. My time at the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2011 Annual Housing Policy Conference last week was a excellent chance to do a little of both.

On the sharing side, I gave a presentation in a workshop on Monday entitled, What Do We Know About Homelessness. There, I was able to share many of the findings of HRI’s most recent major publication, The State of Homelessness in America. When asked by an audience member preparing for last Wednesday’s lobby day for a particular finding that congressional leaders might find compelling, I pointed to the portion of The State of Homelessness that illustrates the high odds of experiencing homelessness faced by young adults aging out of foster care (1 in 6 annually), doubled up individuals and families (1 in 10 annually), and people released from jail or prison (1 in 11 annually).

On Tuesday, it was my time to learn something new. I attended a presentation by Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba of the Children’s Health Watch given during the Connecting Housing to Food Access and Children’s Health Issues workshop. She presented on a new study of the negative impacts on health and food security of being behind on rent. Some of the results were not that surprising. They found, for example, that stably housed families are better off than either homeless families or families behind on rent in terms of health and food security. However, I was surprised to learn that the families behind on rent were considerably more likely than homeless families to experience food insecurity and to make trade-offs to pay medical bills or to forego health care. While I was fully aware that high rent burdens place families at risk of homelessness, this result highlights the health and well being toll faced by cost-burdened families.

For more information, please visit the website.

4th March
written by Catherine An

This week the news media has focused on the essentials of our field: housing, data, populations, and public policy.

Let’s start right in the District. In her column, Michelle Singletary cited our own report to discuss people spending more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent – what is called a “severe housing cost burden” – a situation that can put people at risk of homelessness.

From Tiffin, OH, the Advertiser-Tribune discussed a sticky situation concerning data collection, showing that data collection methodology should be examined as it affects count accuracy. Perhaps a dry topic for a news article, but methodology is a central component of learning about homelessness, especially at the community level.

Then there was a flurry of reports about different populations experiencing homelessness.

Both the Sacramento Bee and CNN covered veteran homelessness. The Bee zoomed in the challenges specific to women returning from combat and CNN took their turn examining the potential ramifications of federal budget cuts to vulnerable veterans (stay tuned). The Medill News Service also took a crack at state budgets and the potential impact reductions will have on homeless youth. (They’re projecting pronounced increases). And New America Media traveled to the other end of the spectrum writing about elderly people living in poverty, at risk of homelessness, while raising their own grandchildren. (Which comes as no surprise.)

Predictably, there were scant few articles about solutions but there does seem to be good buzz from community leaders about the awareness of and dedication to the issue. An editorial from Maine shared some good notes about HPRP, the Associated Press reported that RI will reconvene the state’s Interagency Council on Homelessness to address the issue, and MA Governor Deval Patrick said he’ll commit nearly $40 million to overhaul the state’s emergency homeless assistance program.

Not a bad week, all things considered. Did we miss anything in your town?

16th February
written by naehblog

Have you ever heard the saying, “Homelessness can happen to anyone, it can even happen to you!”? Well, I have, and it seems a bit unhelpful and vague. Can homelessness really happen to a guy like Donald Trump? Probably, the answer is no.

To me, the way to bring the discussion down to earth—from “homelessness can happen to anyone”—is by analyzing the at-risk populations with a bit of data. By doing so, we know that some people are at increased risk.

As an American, your odds of experiencing homelessness in the course of a year are 1 in 200. But if you are an individual who is poor, you are at an increased risk, with odds at 1 in 25. These odds are alarming. And to me, these odds also helpfully demonstrate the very reality that homelessness is largely a problem explained by economics.

While the relationship between economics and homelessness exist (and it’s something we have discussed before), it is important to note that there are also people who are at increased risk of experiencing homelessness based on other demographic factors.

People who are at increased risk are those who are living with friends or family for economic reasons, or doubled up people (odds of 1 in 10), people discharged from prison (1 in 11), and people who have aged out of foster care (1 in 6).

When the odds of experiencing homelessness increase so dramatically based on these demographic factors, you can see why we paid particular attention to these populations, along with the population of people who lack insurance, in the State of Homelessness in America.

The doubled up population, which had an increase of nearly 12 percent from 2008 to 2009, is the demographic factor where conditions have worsened the most, with more than 635,000 people doubled up in 2009. Among the other three factors, changes were all under 2 percent increase.

While working on data analysis for the demographics included in the State of Homelessness, it became clear to me that, in addition to the recessionary effects that have increased the populations who are at-risk of homelessness due to economic reasons, the populations at- risk of homelessness based on demographic factors have also increased, or, at best, these populations have remained constant.

On the other hand, it is also clear that the central component to the solution of ending homelessness is housing (or permanent supportive housing). It’s possible, and it’s necessary, to increase access to affordable housing for all people. The worsening economic and demographic conditions point out that the need to increase access to affordable housing is increasingly urgent.

Top photo courtesy of Kate Dreyer