The 2019 Point-in-Time Count: What Did We Learn About Family Homelessness?

Each year, thousands of volunteers fan out on a late January evening to identify people living outdoors as part of the annual homelessness Point-in-Time Count (PIT). This count provides the only national measure of those living without shelter: people residing in woods, campgrounds, cars, or on city streets. It also provides a snapshot of those residing in temporary housing (e.g. emergency shelter, transitional housing, or in motel accommodations provided by community or faith-based organizations). In early January 2020, HUD released the data from the 2019 PIT count.

What did we learn?

Nearly 54,000 families were identified as experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2019. This represents a 4.7% reduction from the previous year and a 24% reduction since 2013. Family homelessness declined by over one-third in 34 states. (View national and state level progress here).

Despite progress, clear challenges remain. While unsheltered family homelessness declined sharply over the last six years, it remains alarmingly high. Nearly 8,000 children under the age of 18 were found without shelter on the night of the 2019 PIT count. There continues to be vast disparity in who experiences homelessness, with African-American individuals comprising 52% of people in families experiencing homelessness.

The PIT reductions in family homelessness also seem to belie the overwhelming evidence of an affordable housing crisis that leave families exceptionally vulnerable to homelessness and housing loss. As an example, a recent report found that school liaisons identified nearly 1.12 million school children living in doubled up situations and over 100,000 children residing in motels over the 2017-2018 school year. And HUD reports that over 2017 more than 300,000 children and their families were served in emergency shelter or transitional housing.

How can family homelessness measured at a PIT be declining when so many families are experiencing housing instability and homelessness each year?

Localities are responding differently.

In 2013, localities had little to offer families beyond a temporary safe respite.

  • On the night of the January 2013 PIT count, localities assisted nearly 71,000 sheltered or unsheltered families.
  • On the same night, they were providing support to approximately 39,000 formerly homeless families residing in their own homes with permanent supportive housing.

Today, localities have far more tools to assist families experiencing homelessness. They can still offer temporary safe respite to families in crisis. In fact, nationally, there are more temporary housing units (emergency shelter or transitional housing) to provide respite to families than there are families experiencing homelessness at a point-in-time. In addition, localities have more resources to help families escape homelessness.

  • On the night of the January 2019 PIT count, localities assisted approximately 54,000 families experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness.
  • At the same time, they were supporting up to 77,000 formerly homeless families who were residing in their own homes with rapid re-housing, permanent supportive housing, or other permanent housing assistance. With vastly expanded permanent housing tools, more families than ever before receive targeted assistance to exit homelessness.

In other words, family homelessness is declining because homeless service providers are better equipped to help families reconnect to housing. This means that homeless episodes are shorter in many parts of the country. This alleviates the strain on temporary housing resources. When families have shorter homeless episodes, they exit temporary housing programs faster. This is better for children and parents alike.

We see progress, but there is far more to do. It is not time to retrench. It is time to double down.

We Must Do More

First, we have to advocate.

Homeless service providers must have the resources to provide safe respite to those without housing options. But they also need enough resources to re-house families who become homeless.

The Alliance estimates that homeless service providers nationally have capacity to re-house one-third of all families that enter a shelter or transitional housing program each year. This is a significant improvement over previous years but leaves too many families without support to exit homelessness. We need greater local, state, and federal investment so families can reconnect to housing.

The Alliance invites you sign up for Advocacy Alerts, so that you can join our ongoing effort to expand federal investment in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants Programs.

We hope, too, that you will seek opportunities to expand funding from state and local partners. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding has helped localities significantly expand their rapid re-housing capacity. As a result, some localities can provide re-housing assistance to every sheltered family that does not quickly and independently exit homeless service programs. To achieving a housing intervention for every family, we’ll need state resources like TANF to bolster homeless services funding.

Second, the nation must address the affordable housing crisis.

The disconnect between what families earn and what they must pay for housing results in families facing extreme rent burdens, doubling up due to economic necessity, residing in motels and hotels, and turning to homeless service programs. Worsening housing costs push more people into homelessness and make it that much harder for homeless service providers to help people reconnect to housing.

The Alliance is a proud partner of the Opportunity Starts at Home Campaign, which is dedicated to ensuring that “America’s low-income households have access to safe, decent, and stable affordable housing in neighborhoods where everyone has equitable opportunities to thrive.” The Alliance encourages you to join us in supporting this campaign.