HUD reports homelessness is on the rise again, with 2.7% increase and eyes on California
According a new report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), homelessness in the United States is continuing to surge. While an increase in California is a key part of the explanation for this year’s federal government report, this is actually the third year in a row that homelessness has increased in the nation.
Here’s how we get these numbers. The HUD does a report of this nature to determine rates of homelessness once per year. These reports are essentially single-night surveys. As the name suggests, volunteers try to account for how many people are living without shelter on a given night across the country, drawing data from about 3,000 cities. This year’s survey was done in January 2019 and results were released on Friday, Dec. 20.
Let’s look at the numbers next, then get into the plausible discrepancies in how we understand the data. The good news: Homelessness has actually decreased in 29 states, plus Washington D.C., when compared to data from 2018. Of particular note is that the number of families with children identified as homeless dropped 4.8%. Relatedly, homeless youth and children declined by 3.6%. For homeless veterans, it decreased by 2.1%.
The bad news: Overall, homelessness increased by 2.7%. In terms of raw numbers, the total number of people living without homes on any given night rang in at 567,715. Which to be clear, is 567,715 too many people. According to the same data, when we look at the number of people who are chronically homeless (in this case, understood as people who have been living on the street for a year or more), it went up 8.5%. A big portion of this was, again, California.
As the HUD report addresses, a significant chunk of this increase stems from California. California saw a 16.9% increase in homelessness in 2019. According to HUD estimates, 21,306 more people lived without shelter in California this year than last.
“As we look across our nation, we see great progress, but we’re also seeing a continued increase in street homelessness along our West Coast where the cost of housing is extremely high,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson explained in a statement on the data. “In fact, homelessness in California is at a crisis level and needs to be addressed by local and state leaders with crisis-like urgency.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has repeatedly tried to address the housing and homeless crisis in California, though, on the federal level, Trump seems mostly concerned as to how homelessness may impact real estate, because of course. To put California’s homeless crisis in perspective, CNN reports that in Los Angeles County alone, almost 60,000 people are homeless, in spite of local investments and efforts.
Of course, there are some considerable flaws in this method of gathering data—it’s unrealistic that everyone who is experiencing homelessness will be in an area accessible for surveyors to find, and because many people who experience homelessness have unstable sources of housing, the one date approach doesn’t provide the fullest picture. As the report itself addresses, this method of surveying is a “snapshot.” The takeaway here is that it’s entirely possible there are more people living without homes than the numbers suggest.
What could help? Obvious answers include more shelter spaces—if beds are filled, people literally have nowhere else to go. Some people also fear shelters because of domestic violence concerns, trauma, immigration status, or language barriers.
But in the bigger picture, operating under the concept of “housing first” could be a systemic game-changer. In theory, if people have stable housing, they’re better equipped to get the stability they need to earn their own incomes, seek help on addictions or mental health problems, register for school, or so on. Without safe, stable housing, trying to keep up with a job, school, or treatment can be an uphill and deeply unrealistic battle. It’s hard for anyone to get a job—imagine how much harder it is if you don’t have a reliable place to sleep or take a shower. Ethically, every single person deserves a safe home.
Relatedly, attempts to criminalize homelessness are on the rise in cities, including Las Vegas. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear a case that would have permitted officers to ticket people for sleeping on sidewalks and in parks.