Four Homelessness Trends from 2018 and What They Could Mean for 2019

by Oriya Cohen 

In 2018, communities across the country faced a continuing housing affordability crisis—and, in some places, natural disasters—that strained the ability of local actors to address homelessness. After declining for almost a decade, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States increased for the second year in a row. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 552,830 people lived in emergency shelters, lived in transitional housing, or were not sheltered at all; nearly 2,000 more people than in 2017. This growth was driven by an increase in unsheltered and chronically homeless individuals but was balanced out by significant decreases in homelessness among families with children and veterans. Substantial local variation among the data was reported across the country, with 31 states and the District of Columbia reporting decreases in homelessness and 19 states reporting increases. As we approach the 2019 annual Point-in-Time homelessness count, we explore four major homelessness trends in 2018 and what to look for in 2019.

1. Unsheltered homelessness is on the rise

 Unsheltered homelessness—spending the night in places not meant for sleeping, such as vehicles, parks, streets, or abandoned buildings—rose for the third consecutive year. From 2017 to 2018, there was a 2 percent increase in people living in unsheltered locations. A moderate increase in unsheltered homelessness among families with children and a large increase in unsheltered homelessness among adults ages 25 and older masked a national decrease in youth living in unsheltered locations.

Unsheltered homelessness is a national problem with local variations. The rate of unsheltered homelessness among families with children was highest in rural areas. In 10 states, including California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, more than half of individuals experiencing homelessness lived in unsheltered locations. Meanwhile, on a night in January, some of the coldest states, such as Maine, North Dakota, and Vermont had the lowest unsheltered rates for individuals, at 6 to 10 percent.

Although home to around 12 percent of the US population, California accounted for 49 percent of all unsheltered individuals across the country and was home to some of the highest rates of unsheltered status among people experiencing homelessness in both urban and rural continuums of care (CoCs). The CoCs that encompassed Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Jose reported unsheltered rates of 89 percent, 85 percent, and 82 percent, respectively; while in rural California, Alpine, Inyo, and Mono Counties reported a 99 percent unsheltered rate, and Lake County reported a 98 percent rate.

2. Family and veteran homelessness declined significantly

 The emphasis of local and national policy on ending homelessness among specific groups, such as veterans and families with children, appears to have generated results, yet substantial efforts are still needed to achieve functional zero. The number of families experiencing homelessness continued to decline in 2018, with a 2 percent decrease since 2017 and a 23 percent decrease since 2007. With 56,342 families accounting for 180,413 people, families represented one-third of the entire homeless population. Of those families, 91 percent were living in sheltered locations. Research has documented that traditional housing subsidies and rapid re-housing assistance are more effective for homeless families than emergency shelter or high-cost transitional housing options.

The number of veterans experiencing homelessness also declined, with a 5 percent decrease from 2017 to 2018. With a population of 37,878, homeless veterans account for less than 9 percent of the overall homeless population. Like other subpopulations, there is local variation among veterans across the country. California saw the largest decrease in veterans experiencing homelessness, yet the state remains home to the largest overall population of homeless veterans, the most unsheltered veterans, and the CoCs with the highest rates of veteran homelessness. Conversely, eight states sheltered more than 95 percent of their homeless veterans, with Wyoming providing shelter for all its veterans, and New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin providing shelter for 97 percent of their homeless veterans. Much of this success is linked to the increased coordination and collaboration among federal and local planning agencies. Rapid re-housing strategies, increased federal investment, and targeted interventions have helped drive the 48 percent decline of veteran homelessness since 2009.

3. African Americans are overrepresented among several homeless subpopulations

 Although the number of African Americans experiencing homelessness decreased in 2018, they remain overrepresented among the homeless population, accounting for 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness compared with their 13 percent share of the overall US population. Similarly, African American veterans account for almost one-third of veterans experiencing homelessness while accounting for only 12 percent of the nation’s veterans. African Americans also account for 51 percent of people experiencing homelessness as members of families with children. In contrast, people experiencing homelessness who identified their race as white were underrepresented in the overall homeless population, accounting for 49 percent compared with their 72 percent share of the overall US population. Unlike all other racial groups, however, the homeless population of people identifying as white increased by 4 percent overall and by 9 percent among unsheltered individuals.

4.  Natural disasters continue to destabilize communities

The 2018 Point-in-Time counts were the first to track the effects of natural disasters. Based on the January 2018 results, 3,864 people living in sheltered locations were sleeping in beds funded specifically because of a presidentially declared natural disaster—a 1 percent share of all beds available for people experiencing homelessness. Since last January, Hurricanes Florence and Michael and the wildfires in California have increased the number of displaced people. As the prevalence and severity of natural disasters intensifies, the ability of our communities to prepare, respond, and rebound from these events will need to become increasingly integrated into our country’s strategy to end homelessness.

Looking ahead to 2019

Although 2018 saw a marginal increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness, federal, state, and local actors continue to make progress with families with children and veterans and in key states like California. Much of this success has been driven by targeted programs and strategies that reflect alignment between federal priorities and local actors. As the country continues to face higher risks of natural disasters, a lasting affordability crisis, and growing uncertainty around the strength of the social safety net, these coordinated efforts will be needed to help house our unsheltered and hard-to-reach populations, address the racial disparities of homelessness, and track complex drivers of homelessness like natural disasters and housing instability.

The annual Point-in-Time count, conducted on a single night in January each year, provides a snapshot view of homelessness across the country. The data provided by these counts have been critical for assessing homelessness and developing targeted interventions, but there is still significant room for improvement when it comes to tracking difficult-to-count populations like unsheltered youth and more transient forms of homelessness that result from housing instability. The Point-in-Time count is supplemented by one-year “period counts” of people who access services from organizations that report to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Homelessness Management Information System, which omits unsheltered homelessness. Both counts miss people who are couch surfing or doubling up with other households. Debates continue about how to best define homelessness for federal assistance programs, even as researchers document the evidence-based strategies that help get people into housing and immediately re-house those who become homeless.

Photo by WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock