Even as the United States as a whole makes steady progress in its fight against homelessness, those gains are not experienced everywhere.
ThinkProgress examined data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which compiles an annual count of homeless people across the nation. We looked at changes in states’ overall homeless populations between 2008 and 2013 to determine which states are winning the battle against homelessness and which are falling behind.
Roughly half the states saw their homeless populations increase over the past five years, even as the national number has declined. Overall, the five states where homelessness numbers increased the most were North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Vermont, and Montana. The five states that improved the most were Michigan, Kentucky, Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada.
Some of these statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt. As Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, wrote in USA Today, these numbers may be under-counting the true homeless population. “Communities have a lot of discretion in how they carry out these counts,” Foscarinis told ThinkProgress, “so that can account for a lot of difference.” In addition, as Barbara Poppe, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, told ThinkProgress, some states changed the way they counted the data between years, which could account for part of Michigan’s 59 percent drop over the past five years.
Keeping that in mind, there are a multitude of policy and demographic reasons why some states have enjoyed success while others have lagged:
North Dakota: The Peace Garden State saw its homeless population increase more than three-fold since 2008, far outpacing any other state. It’s not difficult to see why. In 2008, there were 615 homeless people in North Dakota. The next year, the state’s fracking boom began. This brought thousands of new people to the state, along with an extraordinary amount of new money. As a result, two-bedroom apartments now charge as much as $2,000 in rent, leaving many poorer residents unable to afford somewhere to live. Plus there was already a dearth of available rental housing, a problem only exacerbated by the 50,000 new residents the state has gained since 2010.
Colorado: The Centennial State has been a model for how a state can use policy to effectively combat homelessness. It has been “very aggressive” in fighting chronic homelessness, Poppe noted, by providing homeless people with housing without first requiring them to beat any addiction or health problems they may have. This “Housing First” model, by not first requiring homeless individuals to get clean, is actually far more effective at helping homeless people get back on their feet because it gives their lives significantly more stability, allowing them to focus on other issues. State and local communities have coupled this effort with support services, including health care and job training. Poppe credited Governor John Hickenlooper (D) for spearheading the effort, first as Mayor of Denver and then as Governor. Colorado is also leading the way in showing that it’s not just more humane, but also less expensive to provide housing to homeless people instead of leaving them on the streets.
Oregon: Like Denver, Portland has been adopting policies that help get homeless people off the streets, such as Housing First coupled with supportive services. “Portland does some of the best health care integration anywhere” into its housing programs, Poppe told ThinkProgress, touting the state’s strong statewide health care system. She also noted that Eugene has implemented a human rights policy and has been increasing the amount of available housing for its homeless population.