The face of homelessness has changed in the last year, with fewer individuals lacking shelter this year than last, but more and more families finding themselves on the street. 

This is the conclusion of the 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The AHAR report provides the latest counts of the national occurrence of homelessness among individuals, families, and special population groups such as veterans and the chronically homeless. The AHAR is based on two data sources:

Excerpts taken from the release...

  1. Continuum of Care applications are submitted to HUD annually as part of the competitive funding process and provide one-night, Point-in-Time (PIT) counts of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations. The PIT counts are based on the number of homeless persons on a single night during the last week in January, and the most recent PIT counts for which data are available nationally were conducted in January 2009.
  2. Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) are electronic administrative databases that are designed to record and store client-level information on the characteristics and service needs of homeless persons. HMIS data is used to produce counts of the sheltered homeless population over a full year—that is, people who used emergency shelter or transitional housing programs at some time during the course of a year. The 2009 AHAR uses HMIS data for the most recent, one-year reporting period and compares these data to previous HMIS-based findings.

Here are some key findings of the report:

643,000 persons were homeless  when the point-in-time survey was taken in January, more than twice that number - 1.56 million people - spent at least one night in a shelter during the year.  This means that one in every 200 Americans had at least a temporary problem with housing last year. These number indicate a drop in 58,000 homeless since the survey was conducted in 2008, a decrease of 5 percent. 60 percent of these persons in the snapshot were located in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs; 37 percent were on the street or sheltered in other places not intended for human habitation.

The report says that while the snapshot figures have remained fairly stable over the three years the report has been produced, there has been a steady decrease of the number of people literally on the street, perhaps indicting community success in getting people into shelters or housing.  The report found, however, that the numbers of homeless families are increasing; up 19,000 or 3.6 percent and representing 37 percent of the population in the single night count.  Families, however, are less likely than single adults to be found on the streets. Almost half of homeless individuals were unsheltered on that night compared with 21 percent of the families.  

Further, when families are considered as a single unit rather than as separate individuals, the study found 170,000 families were sheltered homeless in 2009, an increase of 11,000 or 7 percent between 2008 and 2009.

"As a nation, we appear to be doing a better job sheltering those who might otherwise be living on our streets but clearly homelessness is impacting a greater share of families with children," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. "As patterns of homelessness change, we must use the latest data to tailor our response. The Obama Administration is committed to ending homelessness in all its forms."

The nation may also be doing a slightly better job in dealing with chronic homelessness.  National policy has focused on ending this through funding incentives to develop permanent supportive housing.  The 2009 snapshot counted 110,917 chronically homeless in 2009, down from 123,135 in 2008.  The decrease occurred primarily among the unsheltered population, again perhaps reflecting community outreach efforts.  

People who are homeless by themselves are very different from those who are homeless with children. The single homeless are overwhelmingly male; more than three-quarters are over 30-years-of-age, more than 10 percent are military veterans, and more than 40 percent have a disability.  Adults in sheltered families are overwhelmingly females, under 30, and more than half of their children are under six.

Homelessness is heavily concentrated in the large coastal states; California, New York, and Florida account for 39 percent of all of the homeless counted in January 2009.  They are heavily concentrated again in urban areas with 72.2 percent of individuals and 61.2 percent of persons in families located in principal cities.  They are also populating cities at rates above what poverty levels would indicate.  The share of the sheltered population in large cities in 2009 was nearly twice the share of persons living in poverty - 68.2 percent vs. 35.6 percent.

Here are some definitions shared by HUD:

  1. Individuals: The HMIS-based estimates of sheltered homeless individuals include single adults, unaccompanied youth, persons in multi-adult households, and persons in multi-child households. A multi-adult household is a household composed of adults only—no children are present. A multi-child household is composed of children only (e.g., parenting youth)—no adults are present.
  2. One-Year Sheltered Counts: 12-month counts of homeless persons who use an emergency shelter or transitional housing program at any time from October though September of the following year. The one-year counts are derived from communities’ administrative databases, or Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS).
  3. Persons in Families: The HMIS-based estimates of homeless persons in families include persons in households with at least one adult and one child.
  4. Point-in-Time (PIT) Counts: One-night counts of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations. The one-night counts are reported on CoC applications and reflect a single-night during the last week in January.
  5. Principal City: Following guidance from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the AHAR replaces the term “central city” with “principal city.” The largest city in each metropolitan or micropolitan statistical area is designated a principal city, and other cities may qualify if specified requirements (population size and employment) are met.
  6. Sheltered: A homeless person who is in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program for homeless persons.
  7. Unsheltered: A homeless person who is living in a place not meant for human habitation, such as the streets, abandoned buildings, vehicles, parks, and train stations.

This 198 page report details many more aspects of homelessness in this country and we will be presenting more information from it in future articles.