In preparing the recently released State of Homelessness: 2020 Edition, it was evident that one group was associated with a long list of particularly troubling statistics—individuals. The most recent data suggests that far too many people experiencing homelessness fall into this category. Systemic progress on their behalf has been slow and, in recent years, has turned into decline. Significant disparities among subpopulations are impossible to ignore. Failures to address these challenges make it impossible to end homelessness.
Too Big to Ignore
Individuals experiencing homelessness are a group that is too big to ignore. In 2019, they made up 70 percent of people experiencing homelessness. Some fall into categories reached by targeted policies and resources—veterans, chronically homeless people, or youth under age 24. But roughly 2 out 3 (approximately 254,000 people) do not belong to any of these special subgroups. They often rely on the attention and resources generally available through their Continuums of Care.
Individuals, including those not belonging to any special subpopulation, are numerically too big to ignore in examinations of homelessness.
Small Steps Forward, Big Steps Back
Efforts to end homelessness among individuals are a story of modest progress. HUD began homelessness data collection in 2007. Between that time and 2016, point-in-time counts of individuals were primarily on the decline. But overall counts only decreased by 14 percent.
In three short years (2016-2019), much of that progress has eroded. Counts of individuals are now only 4 percent lower than they were in 2007. The COVID-19 crisis and current recession loom large over this status quo, not only pointing to the possible erasure of the remaining 4 percent of progress, but also setting the stage for potentially record numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness.
Living Without Shelter
Some Americans sleep on sidewalks, beneath freeway underpasses, or in tents. According to the Alliance’s analysis in the State of Homelessness, the nation has a serious and growing unsheltered homelessness problem. In 2019, it included 211,293 people. The vast majority (93 percent) are individuals.
Last year, the likelihood of an individual being unsheltered reached an all-time high since data collection began in 2007. Fifty percent of individuals were unsheltered. This number is hefty, but not significantly above the all-time low of 42 percent. Over time, progress has been made on unsheltered individuals homelessness—just not enough.
One’s likelihood of becoming homeless or being unsheltered tends to vary according to their identity (such as their race, ethnicity, gender, or age). Unfortunately, some existing disparities appear to be growing worse.
As noted above, individuals’ homeless counts have grown over the last three years, wiping out previous modest gains. However, these changes have not been equal. The three subgroups experiencing the fastest increase over this period are transgender individuals (88 percent), Asians (39 percent), and American Indians (30 percent). These numbers are far higher than the 11 percent growth in individual homelessness more generally.
The pattern of disparity extends into unsheltered homelessness. As with the general homeless counts, some disparities in this area have only worsened over the last three years. The most significant growths in unsheltered homelessness have occurred among transgender individuals (113 percent), Asians (53 percent), and Hispanics/Latinxs (50 percent). Their numbers far surpass the overall unsheltered individuals population increase of 25 percent.
All disparities are concerning, but disparities in a few groups raise certain flags. The Trump administration is currently advancing a rule change the would roll back protections promoting equal access to shelter for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Thus, the unsheltered numbers for these subpopulations could soon grow worse. And, notably, Asians rarely top lists of those experiencing the most significant challenges within homelessness—the reasons for recent increases should be explored.
Ending homelessness requires a focus on the majority population—individuals. The Alliance’s annual examination of the data through the State of Homelessness points to troubling trends that could quite possibly grow worse due to the current recession and pending policy changes. Sounding the alarm on individual homelessness is very necessary now and for the foreseeable future.