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New Homelessness Count Shows There’s Still Work to Do

The sobering findings of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) latest annual count of homeless people — that homelessness remains a persistent problem and some communities are losing ground — show that federal policymakers have much to do to help address this serious problem.

The headline finding is that roughly 550,000 people were homeless on a single night in January 2017, several thousand more than in the January 2016 count. One must be cautious in interpreting year-over-year changes in this single-night census, since weather and other factors can distort results. More interesting are what the data show about longer-term trends, as well as demographic and geographic changes. Two main points jump out:

  • Homelessness remains stubbornly persistent. The homeless count has fallen by 13 percent from its 2010 peak, despite the uptick in 2017. But the 2010 peak followed one of the deepest recessions in U.S. history, and the 2017 count took place after eight straight years of economic growth and at a time of low unemployment. The most striking long-term trend is homelessness’ stubborn persistence amid a growing economy.
  • Some communities are losing ground, despite the extended economic recovery. While the number of homeless people has fallen since the recession, metropolitan areas with tight housing markets and rising rents — particularly in California and other coastal states — have recently seen significant increases in street homelessness.

HUD’S report makes clear that, even in a strong economy, tackling homelessness will require targeted and expanded efforts to address the wide gap between rental housing costs and the incomes of the nation’s poorest households. In areas where housing supply isn’t keeping pace with demand, investments in expanding the supply of affordable rental housing are also crucial.

Rental assistance, combined where appropriate with coordinated services in a supportive housing model, sharply reduces homelessness, even among people with serious mental health problems who have been homeless for lengthy or repeated periods, research clearly shows. Homeless families that receive housing vouchers or other rental assistance also have lower rates of food insecurity and domestic violence, and their children are less likely to be placed into foster care or otherwise separated from the family.

A notable example of these successful strategies is the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, which federal policymakers created in 2009 and have expanded by funding new VASH vouchers every year since. VASH is largely responsible for cutting veterans’ homelessness by almost half.

Policymakers can take two key steps in the coming months to fight homelessness:

1) Renew existing rental assistance in the 2018 HUD funding bill and expand aid targeted to reduce homelessness and meet other urgent needs. More than half of the housing that extremely low-income renters can afford is affordable to them only because they receive federal rental assistance. Policymakers should protect existing aid and expand targeted assistance for homeless veterans, families with children that are involved with child welfare agencies, and other groups. (As we’ve explained elsewhere, the President and Congress must significantly increase funding for Housing Choice Vouchers in 2018, for example, to prevent cuts in the number of families assisted.)

2) Protect private activity bonds to create affordable housing. The House- and Senate-passed tax bills threaten to undercut efforts to address homelessness by boosting budget deficits, which tax-cut supporters would likely then use to justify cutting housing and other programs and weakening tax subsidies for affordable housing. The House bill would be especially damaging because it would also eliminate tax-exempt “private activity bonds,” which states use to help develop tens of thousands of affordable housing units each year. The House-Senate conference committee that is ironing out a final tax bill from the House- and Senate-passed bills must retain those bonds.