Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
Many Obama-era policies are keeping numbers low in smaller cities. But the new data comes in the wake of a GOP budget that does little to bolster affordable housing.
On a single night in January 2017, 553,742 were homeless across the U.S. For the first time in seven years, this number has grown. In the past year, the nation has seen a one-percent increase in the nation’s homeless population. That’s 3,814 more homeless people since January 2016.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report—the report to Congress that analyzes the results of a nationwide point-in-time estimate, conducted in January. This year’s report reveals that while homelessness has dropped in a number of places, the overall uptick has been driven by an increase in the nation’s 50 most populous cities.
After volunteers in some 3,000 cities counted individuals and families living in shelters, outside of shelters, or in temporary housing, the report found that almost one in four homeless people live in Los Angeles or New York City. Los Angeles reported a dramatic 26 percent increase in homelessness since 2016, New York City a 4.1 percent increase. Other high-cost metros, like Seattle, Washington D.C, and San Jose, and San Francisco, also fall within the top ten cities with the highest homeless populations.
“The commonality in [these places] are rapidly rising rents, with not rapidly rising incomes. This is causing the displacement of a significant number of people,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson during a press call on Wednesday. Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, agreed. “High cost and low vacancy rates are putting more people at risk of entering homelessness, and they’re making it harder and harder for people to find housing as they strive to exit homelessness.”
More specifically, while the nation’s homeless population is growing, so, too, is the number of homeless people who are living without shelter. Since 2016, there are 17,139 more unsheltered people, the majority of them living in west coast cities such as Los Angeles and Fresno, where 75 percent of the homeless population lives outside. Overall, about one third (35 percent) of all homeless people are staying in unsheltered locations.
For the first time since 2010, there was also an increase in homeless veterans, which happened almost entirely within these high-rent, west coast cities. 36 states and the District of Columbia saw decreases in homeless veterans, with the largest absolute decreases in Georgia (343 fewer veterans) and South Carolina (258). However, in Los Angeles alone, veteran homelessness increased by 64 percent since January 2016. This accounts for the majority of the nationwide increase of 1.5 percent during the same timeframe. And these numbers are bound to grow.
Despite Trump’s promise to house all homeless vets, earlier this week, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin announced that the VA would end a $460 million program that has dramatically reduced homelessness for vulnerable veterans. After Politico first reported the decision, Shulkin said he was changing the agency’s position and would not eliminate the program.
By contrast, in smaller cities and counties many Obama-era policies are holding strong. The rate of homelessness in a single night remains well below that figure in 2010—the year during which the Obama administration introduced Opening Doors, the first strategic federal plan to solve nationwide homelessness. Since the program started, America’s homeless population has decreased by 13.1 percent, even after factoring in this year’s decrease.
Despite the national increase, the number of homeless people did decline in 30 states and the District of Columbia between 2016 and 2017. The largest absolute decreases were in Georgia (2,735 fewer people), Massachusetts (2,043 fewer people), and Florida (1,369 fewer people). In particular, the number of people who are experiencing homelessness in smaller cities and counties decreased, by three percent. There were also declines in family homelessness, with 5.4 percent fewer homeless families than in 2016.
“There is a lot of evidence that current strategies are working. Housing first practices and programs are driving progress when communities can take those solutions to the scale needed to match the scale of need,” said Doherty. “We also see evidence of the progress of the shift of rapid housing practices in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness in these counts. We see impact of housing first practices in the growing number of communities achieving ambitions goals.”
Indeed, the report documents a 21.5 percent increase since 2016 in Rapid Re-Housing units—temporary housing units designed to move people out of homelessness and into permanent housing.
However, many of Trump’s proposed policies will gut these Obama-era policies, likely driving more people to the streets. The president’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year would cut HUD spending by more than $6 billion, which would eliminate housing aid for millions of families, including rental housing vouchers for more than 250,000 households. As Kriston Capps reported, “relative to funding levels necessary for HUD in fiscal year 2017, the cuts amount to a 15 percent reduction—the largest cuts in housing aid since the Reagan administration.”
In August, HUD released a report which found that the number of U.S. households facing worst-case housing scenarios—defined as very low–income households that do not receive government aid for housing and spend more than half their income on rent, or live in unsafe conditions, or both—is returning to levels that have not been seen since the foreclosure crisis of 2011. And Trump’s budget may push us back to those crisis levels: In 2011, the nation saw record-breaking worst-case housing conditions when the number of highly vulnerable families reached 8.48 million. According to HUD’s report, the current number of these vulnerable families is 8.3 million.
In the wake of these worst-case numbers, Trump’s budget proposal also eliminates the national Housing Trust Fund, a nationwide program that provides housing aid to America’s lowest-income households. And the new GOP tax bill, which is bereft of legislation for making housing more affordable, will only make matters worse.
Carson made a point in his comments Wednesday to note that homelessness was not solely a federal government concern.
“Eliminating homelessness is not just a federal government problem. It’s a societal problem. It’s all of our problem,” Carson said. “The solutions occur when we are willing to work together.” Indeed, community-wide efforts to combat homelessness saw great success: 60 percent of Continuums of Care—the local planning bodies that are responsible for homelessness services in particular geographic areas—reported declines in local homelessness.
However, the current administration has not acknowledged the correlation between these vast improvements, and the fact that the Obama administration adopted Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing strategies as federal law.