As the Pandemic Began, Troubling Signs About Homelessness Were on the Horizon

The homeless services world will grapple with the fallout from the pandemic for several years to come. In a series of surveys that began last year, the Alliance gathered and shared real-time information from the field. The work to understand the crisis continues with the recent release of The State of Homelessness: 2021 Edition.

Drawing from the 2020 Point-in-Time Count, the report paints a picture of homelessness and homeless services less than two months before the COVID-19 crisis began. At the time, there were already reasons to be concerned about homelessness. Now that pandemic is compounding that status quo, it is time to sound an alarm.

Troubling Trends

The annual Point-in-Time Count was already underway a few weeks before 2020’s national emergency declaration. It would later reveal a fourth straight year of homeless population increases. Thus far, these increases have been modest. However, they are slowly eroding previous progress made by the homeless services world. As of early 2020, the size of the overall population was only 10 percent smaller than when data collection began in 2007.

Many of the challenges surrounding these increases involve individuals experiencing homelessness. Counts among this cohort have been trending upwards over the last couple of years, increasing by 15 percent. They make up the largest subpopulation within homelessness. Mainly adult men living on their own, they can attract less sympathy from policymakers and the general public than other groups such as women with children. Thus, the assistance available to them in communities across the country may be limited. In 2020, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness was only 1 percent lower than the record high that existed in 2007.

Delving below the surface reveals other troubling trends for some individuals. For the first time in the history of data collection, most individuals were unsheltered. They were not accessing the system of temporary beds and cots that significantly represent the nation’s response to homelessness.

Additionally, after years of significant progress in addressing their needs and reducing their homeless counts, chronic homelessness among individuals is on the rise. In 2020, this subset of individuals was 43 percent larger than they were just a few years earlier in 2016.

Clouding Previous Gains

Pre-pandemic trends cloud over the previous gains made by homeless services systems. Historically, most years have been defined by steady (though modest) declines in homelessness. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the 2020 Point in Time count.

Significantly, certain subpopulations have experienced progress that outpaces the overall group of people experiencing homelessness. Veterans are the best example: homelessness among people who have served our country was 39 percent lower in 2020 than in 2007. Currently, 82 communities and 3 states have announced that they ended veterans’ homelessness (ending homelessness meaning that an experience of being unhoused is rare, brief, and one-time). Families with children are an additional example of these declines. Within the most recent data, the size of the population was 27 percent smaller than in 2007.

History proves that the nation can – and has – reduced homelessness. It simply needs to do so again while ensuring that no subgroup is left behind.

The Pandemic’s Impact on the Status Quo

Since the 2020 Point-in-Time Count, COVID-19 has battered almost every aspect of American life. The pandemic-related recession has spurred elevated unemployment levels. Many Americans say they are behind on their rent and mortgage payments. Eviction moratoriums have been helpful. According to the Eviction Lab, during most of 2020, eviction filings were 65 percent below the historical averages in the cities they track. The national-level moratorium expired at the end of July, but was extended in areas of higher COVID-19 transmission until October 3, covering an estimated 90% of renters. Despite these advances, there is still reason to worry.

Once the October 3 moratorium ends, far more people will likely be getting eviction notices. Some of them will experience homelessness, and the nation could quite possibly see record-high levels of individuals experiencing homelessness. Even before the pandemic, counts were trending upwards and inching towards a historical record. Previous progress on family and overall homelessness could also diminish as a result.

Aid is Available

Federal relief efforts are helping vulnerable Americans. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) of 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP Act) of 2021 are delivering resources that help prevent homelessness and house those who are already homeless. Emergency Housing Choice Vouchers and rental assistance are significant items on a long list of valuable forms of aid.

However, there are no guarantees that the aid will be directed in ways that will help address the negative trends that were already emerging before the pandemic. It is up to states, communities, and Continuums of Care to ensure that this money reaches the people who need it most: those currently experiencing homelessness.

Big questions remain: Will vouchers actually reach those experiencing homelessness? Will rental assistance benefit those most at risk of turning up in shelters or unsheltered locations? And will individuals be meaningfully included in the recovery (and especially those who are not veterans, chronic, and youth)? They are disproportionately men and people of color. Will the various decision-makers responsible for these resources leave them behind as they have in the past?

There is a lot of work ahead.