Homelessness has plagued U.S. cities and their residents for decades, resulting in dedicated funds and continuums of care (CoC) to support affected individuals and families. But despite these efforts, the crisis is worsening.
In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found the national homelessness rate increased 2.7% in 2019 from 2018 levels, with 567,715 people experiencing homelessness on a single night. As unemployment rates climb amid the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers are expected to rise.
In an effort to analyze and influence progress toward ending homelessness, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) released its State of Homelessness 2020 report. The interactive report looks at data from all levels of government to detail homelessness assistance trends, at-risk populations and health crisis predictions, among other findings.
Smart Cities Dive identified three main takeaways, detailed below with accompanying charts built by NAEH and Tableau. For interactive versions of the charts, visit the report.
Subgroups of homeless populations do not see equal relief
Progress to alleviate homelessness has not been made evenly across all subgroups of the homeless population. For instance, veterans have seen a 50% reduction in homelessness over the last decade, while reduction rates are much lower for the unsheltered, who may sleep on the street or in cars (10%); the chronically homeless (9%) and for those simply defined as individuals (0.2%), which includes all homeless individuals who are not veterans, unaccompanied youth or chronically homeless.
"Individuals are also solely responsible for the national-level increases in overall homelessness that occurred over the last three years," NAEH wrote.
While many cities have adopted dedicated efforts to support specific homeless populations — West Los Angeles hosts a campus dedicated entirely to homeless veterans, and New York City has rolled out rent subsidy programs for homeless families — this data suggests more support is needed for "uncategorized" homeless individuals.
Some resources for homeless populations are decreasing
"Homeless services systems do not have enough resources to fully meet the needs of everyone experiencing homelessness," NAEH wrote. The alliance found the number of temporary housing beds (emergency shelter, safe haven and traditional housing) have decreased by 9% nationally over the last five years.
The COVID-19 crisis has only made it more challenging for people experiencing homelessness to access beds or other necessary resources. A March report found people experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be hospitalized during the pandemic and that it would take $11.5 billion in funding to properly care for the national homeless community amid the outbreak.
Cities including Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Asheville, NC have partnered with individual hotels and motels or hotel service authorities to offer shelter to vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. These are temporary solutions — many of the hotels are expected to resume traditional operations when safe — yet they shine a light on possible initiatives to support this population.
Housing costs are a significant burden
The median U.S. household income is $63,172, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2018 poverty and income data. That year saw the lowest poverty rate in over a decade, at 11.8%, yet the rate still accounts for 38.1 million people who live in poverty.
For many in poverty, the cost of housing is a top burden. NAEH found that 6.5 million Americans spent more than 50% of their income on housing in 2018, while 4 million Americans were "doubled up," meaning they shared housing with other individuals or families.
The burden of housing costs is also starting to creep above the poverty line as Americans affected by pandemic-related furloughs and layoffs have struggled to pay rent. Many affordable housing advocates and government leaders have called on Congress to cancel rent and mortgage payments nationwide and to invest more in affordable housing, yet little action has been taken federally.
In a recent press conference, Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said this pandemic has "laid bare the housing instability that our communities were already facing."
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