What Gets Measured Gets Managed

This guest post was written by Jill Khadduri, Senior Fellow and Principal Associate for Social and Economic Policy at Abt Associates.

An old adage tells us, “What gets measured gets managed.”

That’s why, beginning in the early 2000s, communities across the country have routinely collected data on homelessness. Each year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development analyzes the data and delivers an Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. The AHAR gives us a comprehensive estimate of homelessness in the nation and provides insights about where it is growing and where we’re making progress.

What does the AHAR tell us?

The AHAR reports and accompanying datasets provide information about different types of people experiencing homelessness (families with children, veterans, youth on their own) as well as what homelessness is like in different types of communities or parts of the country. The two primary sources of information for this report are a “one-night count” of sheltered and unsheltered homelessness conducted by community volunteers, and administrative data collected by Continuums of Care over the course of the year.

Over the years, the number of communities covered by the AHAR has expanded and the analysis in the report has become more granular. A new brief from the Center for Evidence-based Solutions to Homelessness identifies trends and patterns that emerge from the AHAR reports. These findings enable us to assess the effectiveness of various investments and interventions and to identify emerging issues.

National trends and patterns

The most recent AHAR shows a slight uptick in the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night, after six years of modest declines. This increase was driven by growth in unsheltered homelessness — that is, the number of people sleeping on the street, in their cars, or in public parks, etc. The report also indicates substantial declines in the number of homeless veterans and the number of people with chronic patterns of homelessness since the AHAR began in 2007.

Underlying variation

Significant variation at the state and local levels underlies and drives these national trends. Unsurprisingly, the nation’s largest states have the highest numbers of people experiencing homelessness. California, New York, Florida, and Texas account for about half the national estimate. However, these states also have very different rates of homelessness: from 0.30 percent in California (nearly double the national average of 0.16 percent) to 0.08 percent in Texas (half the national average).

Trends and patterns of homelessness also differ substantially across metropolitan areas within a single state. In Texas, estimates of homelessness over the same time period fell by more than 10 percent in Houston and increased by 8.5 percent in El Paso, with virtually no change in Dallas and Fort Worth.

What does the evidence tell us?

The Center brief, Trends and Patterns of Homelessness, takes a close look at these and other shifts in the data and at the research that can help to explain these changes. Investment in affordable housing programs, “right to shelter” laws, and broader economic shifts all impact the numbers that appear in the AHAR each year.

It would be difficult to draw a straight line from any single factor to a shift in estimates of homelessness. But the more data we collect, the better we can evaluate and make the case for effective interventions.

Jill Khadduri, a principal associate and senior fellow at Abt Associates, has been working on homelessness for many years — in particular, on the intersection of housing policy and homelessness.  She is co-principal investigator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report and has worked on several major studies of homelessness since joining Abt in 2000.