If you ask provider of homeless services in your community what a “typical” homeless person in shelter looks like, they may give you an entirely different answer than a provider in my community would give me. Homelessness doesn’t look the same across the nation, across a state, or even across a community.
It’s true that homeless person is unique, which makes it difficult to understand what homelessness looks like in America, but here’s the catch: unless we understand the general demographic trends in homelessness, we cannot provide the most effective services to end their homelessness.
So how do we these trends of homelessness on a national scale? To address this challenging question, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) collects data from around the country throughout the year and synthesizes this information into two yearly reports called the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, Parts 1 and 2.
Part 1 contains information from the annual Point-in-Time Counts conducted by communities nationwide on a single night in January. This means that the AHAR Part 1 focuses on a snapshot of American homelessness during a single night, and it includes both the sheltered and unsheltered populations.
Part 2 includes information obtained from homeless shelters throughout the course of an entire calendar year. Because HUD must wait until the end of the year to collect data from communities, Part 2 is often released much later than Part 1. In 2014, researchers at HUD were still gathering and analyzing data from 2013. Just last month, HUD released this information in the 2013 AHAR Part 2.
The AHAR Part 2 provides valuable information on homelessness in America over the course of an entire year. Here are some of the key findings from 2013:
- Approximately 1.42 million people used a shelter during the course of the year, which is a 10.5 percent decline from 2007. However, the average length of stay in a shelter program increased slightly.
- Racial minorities, particularly African Americans, are more likely to experience homelessness than whites. One in 68 African Americans was in a homeless shelter in 2013.
- The number of people in shelter in suburban and rural areas increased by 8.5 percent from 2007 to 2013, but it has declined by 16.4 percent in urban areas for the same time period.
- The number and percentage of elderly persons (aged 62 and older) in shelter continued to increase. In 2007, 4.1 percent of all individuals in shelter were elderly; in 2013, this figure rose to 5.4 percent.
- The percent of individuals with a disability in a shelter increased from 40 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2013.
- The number of persons in families in shelter decreased by 7.4 percent from 2012 to 2013.
- Almost half (49.8 percent) of all veterans in shelter in 2013 were a racial minority. Because only 20.4 percent of all veterans are racial minorities, this means that racial minority veterans are drastically overrepresented in homeless shelters.
Though there is no one “face” of homelessness, the AHAR Part 2 does provide a critical lens through which homelessness advocates and providers can get a workable understanding the national demographic trends of homelessness in America’s shelters.
The more details we know about the homeless population, the better we can serve them. Armed with this information, we all can continue the fight against homelessness in a way that is data-driven and adaptive to the changing faces of homelessness.
Graphic from Part 2 of the "The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress," U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.