Official Homelessness Decreases but Advocates are Skeptical

By: - February 1, 2012 12:00 am

The results of a recent survey of homelessness may come as a bit of surprise. Despite high unemployment and foreclosure rates, Arizona, Nevada and Rhode Island all saw overall homelessness decrease by nearly a third between 2009 and 2011, says a new report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

But the findings have a caveat. These figures come from the federal government’s “point-in-time” report that aims to count the number of homeless in shelters and on the streets on a single night last January. The figure is based on data reported by more than 3,000 cities and counties. 

The alliance acknowledges that “point-in-time” counts from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are imperfect and do not represent a precise count of homeless people. But over time, these counts do provide a way to assess whether the homeless population has increased or decreased, HUD says. 

Advocates caution that the findings may be overly optimistic. “It’s basically a snapshot of the homeless in one day over 700 days,” says Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless in Pawtucket. “It’s not an accurate reflection,” he says. 

Homeless advocates in Arizona agree and say their state’s decline also could be attributed to a change in the way the one-day count is done there. Joan Serviss, executive director of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness , says that besides surveying shelters, counters used to go into the streets and include those they thought were homeless. Now people have to be asked if they are homeless, and some won’t admit it, she says.

Nationwide, the alliance found that the number of individuals in homeless families decreased by 1 percent, but increased by 20 percent or more in 11 states. State changes range from a 33 percent decrease in Rhode Island to a 102 percent increase in Wyoming, according to the report. 

The latest HUD data released last month indicate that five states accounted for half of the nation’s total homeless population: California (21.4 percent), New York (10 percent), Florida (8.9 percent), Texas (5.8 percent) and Georgia (3.3 percent). 

Besides the point-in-time snapshot, HUD also provides an annual count of how many people use a shelter at least once over the course of a year. These two reports taken together make up HUD’s “annual homeless assessment” report , which last summer also showed a slight decrease. HUD estimated that from 2007 to 2010, the overall number of homeless declined 3.3 percent. New numbers will be released this summer. 

The National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Obama administration both credit stimulus funds for keeping homelessness essentially unchanged in the aftermath of the recession. The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program in the stimulus provided states and localities $1.5 billion over three years and helped prevent 1.2 million people from becoming homeless, says Brian Sullivan of HUD. 

That stimulus money runs out by this fall, but Sullivan says states and localities will get $286 million this year in Emergency Solution federal grants, which can be used to prevent homelessness. 

The alliance and other advocates worry that since homelessness is a lagging indicator, it could increase as additional federal funding ends. “We are seeing new faces at the front door of shelters,” says Serviss in Arizona.

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