The number of people sleeping on the streets without a habitable roof over their head rose by more than 2 percent over the past year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual report. The report, published Monday, is based on a count of people on one night in January 2018 who were experiencing homelessness (called a “point-in-time count”).
For the second straight year, the total number of people who experience homelessness (which includes those sleeping in shelters or transitional housing) rose slightly (.3 percent) to 552,830. On the night of the count, HUD found about one-third of the country’s total population of people who are homeless are living on the street, in abandoned buildings, or other places “not suitable for human habitation,” according to the report.
The actual number of people living homeless on that night was probably higher: HUD’s count was imprecise due to flaws in the methodology, according to a 2017 National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) report. For instance, people sleep in areas that may not be visible to volunteer counters.
HUD published the report amid a nationwide housing crisis: Between 2010 and 2016, the country’s affordable housing supply decreased by about 60 percent. Homeless and housing advocacy groups say the increase in people experiencing homelessness demonstrates how badly Americans need better access to affordable housing and emergency shelter space.
“Ultimately we think there needs more accessible affordable housing. That is the ultimate solution,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the NLCHP. “But we do think that more short-term emergency shelter could be [an important] part of the solution.”
Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, attributed the rise in homelessness to the rapidly rising rents in major urban areas like New York City (78,676 people experiencing homelessness this year), or Seattle (12,112). However, she noted that cities such as Los Angeles that have boosted funds and have a strong nonprofit sector aimed at solving homelessness, actually counted a large decrease in its population who are living homeless.
“The slight rise in homelessness, for the second year in a row, is alarming but unsurprising, given the country’s extensive and increasing housing affordability crisis for the lowest income people,” Yentel said.
Even as housing becomes less affordable across the country — and even as experts point out solutions that could alleviate or totally end homelessness — some cities are instead taking steps to punish people experiencing homelessness. The number of people seeking shelter in encampments has risen dramatically over the last 10 years, and many cities have passed local laws and ordinances which fine people for camping in public areas.
An appeals court found this practice illegal when cities do not have available shelter spaces, but despite this ruling, a number of California cities and towns have imposed such laws. California is home to 51 percent of all unsheltered people living in the U.S., according to the HUD report. An increasing number of people living on the streets or in camps instead of shelters or houses could put political pressure on local officials to crack down on encampments or sleeping on the street, pressuring them to impose such laws, said Tars.
Yentel notes that when governments and organizations invest in making housing more affordable to people with the lowest incomes, “the number of people experiencing homelessness decreases rapidly. If the federal government applied this lesson broadly, we would end homelessness in our country,” she said.