Examining Data: Exploring Unsheltered Family Homelessness

Data is a key asset for highly performing Continuums of Care (CoCs). Properly managed, it can be an indicator of a community’s progress and needs. It also serves as an effective barometer of whether it has the right supply, or mix, of homeless service interventions.

The Alliance has released a new data tool that can be used to spark local discussion about the allocation of family homelessness resources. For each CoC, the tool provides point-in-time data on the:

  • number of families experiencing homelessness;
  • number of temporary housing units for families (emergency shelter and transitional housing);
  • number of rapid re-housing units for families (typically in use by families who have already exited temporary housing);
  • percentage of homeless families experiencing unsheltered homelessness; and
  • temporary housing and rapid re-housing units for families relative to the number of families experiencing homelessness.

The tool, which relies on data from the 2018 Point-in-Time (PIT) Count and Housing Inventory Count (HIC), provides a visual snapshot of need and resources on a single night. It can help each community find some answers. But just as importantly, it surfaces key questions about their current system for ending family homelessness and whether resources are being used appropriately.  

One of the most important questions to explore is why families are living without shelter.

A matter of capacity

Nationally there are approximately 5,000 families experiencing unsheltered homelessness at a point-in-time (about 1 in 10 homeless families). Unsheltered family homelessness varies widely across and within states: some report no unsheltered families on the night of the point-in-time count, while others identify as many as 20 percent of all families experiencing homelessness as unsheltered – twice the national rate. 

Many would conclude that states and localities with high rates of unsheltered family homelessness simply lack the needed temporary housing capacity.  So, the assumption might be that you need to build more shelter capacity. But this isn’t always the case. In fact, many unsheltered families reside in communities with a surplus of temporary housing capacity.

If there is enough temporary housing capacity available, why are families still unsheltered?  

If your CoC has unsheltered families, while still having adequate temporary housing capacity for them, make it a priority to understand why this is occurring. It may be a data error, but there could be other explanations.

There may be program application issues or referral delays. There may be program barriers or policy issues that contribute to the under-utilization of highly valuable temporary housing resources. Available units may be located far from where families are experiencing homelessness, which is particularly true in Balance of State CoCs. 

Families may have their own reasons to forgo the available temporary housing resources. The available units or program may appear to the family to be inadequate or unsafe. Perhaps the family prefers to remain with their vehicle or their treasured pets.

Regardless, families with children should never go without a safe place to stay the night. It certainly should not happen in communities that have resources to shelter them. 

It is essential that your CoC understands and addresses what contributes to this disconnect.

If there isn’t enough temporary housing capacity, shouldn’t we create more?

In many communities there are far more families experiencing homelessness at a point-in-time than temporary housing units available to them. (Surprisingly though, even in these localities, temporary housing units still go unused). 

If your locality faces a shortage of temporary housing capacity, local leaders may reasonably conclude that there is an urgent need to expand shelter capacity.

This may be necessary. However, building permanent physical shelter capacity may be the most inefficient and expensive mechanism to address unsheltered family homelessness. Funding and siting new temporary housing programs for any population experiencing homelessness can take years. Meanwhile, families are still without a safe place to stay. Motel vouchers and overflow shelters can provide immediate relief, but they are not likely to be the best long-term answer.

As you consider these options, you may also consider whether investments in other parts of the homelessness system may yield faster and less costly results in ending unsheltered family homelessness.

For example, expanding re-housing capacity can significantly reduce the strain on homeless service systems. Rapid re-housing—used as intended to reduce the length of time families experience homelessness— can free up existing shelter capacity so it is available to assist other families in crisis, including unsheltered families and those on waitlists.

Similarly, ramping up diversion capacity can help some families avoid shelter stays, thus freeing up shelter capacity for those without any other option. Localities are also using the same successful diversion techniques that help families avoid a homeless episode to help families who are already homeless (including unsheltered families) reconnect to housing. In this way, they are quickly ending unsheltered families’ homelessness.  

Exploring Data and Looking Ahead

HUD requires localities to collect and report a lot of data on how they are serving people experiencing homelessness.  Too many times, the data is forwarded to HUD, and that’s all that is done with it.

Yet this data yields valuable information that can be a critical tool to helping homeless service system leaders improve how they are using their resources. It can also be a tool to advocate for new resources, allowing localities to demonstrate to policymakers resource gaps and local successes.

Future blog posts will explore other questions raised by the Alliance’s new data tool and how it can be used to inform local decision-making and advocacy.  We welcome your feedback and insights.