The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) recently published federal report on homelessness is harmful and misleading. On December 19, 2022, HUD released Part 1 of its Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR), stating that on a single night in January of 2022 just under 60,000 families were experiencing homelessness, reflecting a 5.5% reduction in family homelessness since 2020 (the last year from which full data is available), and an overall 36% reduction in family homelessness since 2010.
The Department of Education (DOE), another federal agency required to track and report on homelessness, reported that for the 2020-2021 school year (the most recent year on record), 1.1 million enrolled students experienced homelessness. That statistic begs the question: What about the unenrolled children? It also estimated that, due to COVID-forced school closures, roughly 420,000 students were missed in the DOE count in that same school year. Why are these numbers so different? Why are two different federal agencies reporting contradicting data on the same issue?
Let’s start with how homelessness is defined. HUD does not include in its count students whose families are living in doubled-up situations and students whose families are self-paying in motels. Unhoused families will often do whatever is needed to obtain a roof overhead, but those placements are often dangerous, insecure, and inadequate. As a result, families often end up in doubled-up or motel situations when safe, family shelter is not available. As one Family Promise Affiliate executive director shared “Every daily/weekly motel in this town is a shelter without services.”
Families that experience homelessness under the expanded DOE definition are just as vulnerable as those in HUD’s count. The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that, regardless of how homelessness is defined, “risk behaviors of students in each [homeless] living situation revealed that youths’ vulnerability to violence, suicide, substance abuse, hunger, bullying, and lack of sleep was comparable across different living situations.” The harm that results from not counting children and youth under the expanded homeless definition is that HUD is not acknowledging or responding to the trauma endured by children and youth experiencing homelessness. HUD is also not responding to the state of risk in which these children and youth live. HUD is the largest federal provider of homeless services, yet these children and youth are ineligible for services.
The differences in defining homelessness lead to misinterpretations of the need for services for families experiencing homelessness. For example, in response to HUD’s inaccurate count, the National Alliance to End Homelessness published this blog post, reporting “Overall, there were 59,967 family units of emergency shelter or transitional housing to assist the 50,767 families experiencing homelessness on the night of the PIT Count. This represents an overall national capacity to assist 118% of the families experiencing homelessness on the night of the PIT Count.”
There are so many things wrong with this interpretation. Not only is true homelessness not represented in the PIT Count for families by definition, but the way we measure bed counts works primarily for single adults, not family units. The Housing Inventory Chart (which counts beds available) may reflect beds that are open in already occupied family rooms, since family size and bed utilization varies. Publicizing a blog with these interpretations is dangerous as it implies that the US has the capacity to respond to the family homelessness crisis without further investment. And yet the majority of families that are homeless were not included in this count. We cannot come close to addressing the crisis of family homelessness without further investment.
Finally, there is also something to be said about adding to the current emergency state of homelessness. By not properly acknowledging and responding to youth and family homelessness, we are creating “veterans of homelessness.” Children that experience homelessness are more likely to experience homelessness as an adult than those who were stably housed as children. We are building the homeless crisis. The below data reflects that roughly half of adults experiencing homelessness surveyed reported that their first incidence of homelessness occurred as children with their families, or as transition-age youth.
- “In a Seattle survey of homeless adults, 22% indicated that their first experience of homelessness occurred when they were children under the age 18, and 26%… when they were between the ages of 18 and 24.”
- “20% of unsheltered homeless adults in Los Angeles indicated that they first experienced homelessness when they were under age 18, and 25% first experienced homelessness when they were young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 (Flaming, Burns, and Carlin 2018).”
- “In Minnesota, more than half (52%) of homeless adults surveyed first became homeless by the time they were age 24, and over one-third (36%) first became homeless at or before age 18.”
Again, in conflict with HUD’s data, based on 2019-2020 school year data, one in 19 children will experience homelessness before their sixth birthday.
By misrepresenting child and youth homelessness, HUD is under-responding to and underfunding responses to youth and family homelessness. We need to do better as a nation for our children.
This article is by Stacy Pollard, West Regional Director at Family Promise National.