Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR), boasting a “continuing decline” in family homelessness. This assertion was met with dismay and disbelief from providers who work directly with families and youth, including early childhood programs and educators. They confront a very different reality.

This short article expands on the press release issued last month by six national organizations. It explains why HUD’s data are so contentious, and why other data sources provide a more accurate picture of children, youth, and family homelessness.

HUD, ED, and HHS Data Tell Different Stories About Family and Youth Homelessness

The Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR) provides estimates of people who are in shelter and in unsheltered locations on a single night. These counts, known as the Point-in-Time (PIT) counts, are conducted by communities nationwide, and typically occur during the last week in January of each year.

HUD’s 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR) estimates that on a single night in January 2018, more than 180,000 parents and children were experiencing homelessness. According to HUD’s numbers, this is a 2% decrease from 2017, and a 23% decrease since 2007.  

However, other public systems report significant increases in child and family homelessness.  For example, preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Education reported that 1,354,363 homeless children and youth were identified in the 2016-2017 school year by public schools – a 4% increase from the 2015-2016 school year and a 70% increase from the 2007-2008 school year – the highest number on record. Head Start programs also reported record levels of homeless children, from 26,200 homeless children in 2007-2008 to 52,764 in 2016-2017 – a 100% increase.

The 2018 AHAR also claims that that 36,361 unaccompanied youth under age 25 were experiencing homelessness, and that 2019 will be the ‘baseline year’ for youth who experience homelessness on their own (unaccompanied homeless youth). Public schools, however, reported 118,364 unaccompanied homeless youth, an increase of 6% since the 2015-2016 school year, the highest number on record. Last year’s first-of-its-kind study on unaccompanied youth homelessness in America, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, found that 4.2 million young people experienced unaccompanied homelessness over a 12 month period.

HUD’s Data and Methodology Account for Only a Fraction of Families and Youth Experiencing Homelessness

HUD’s “Point in Time” (PIT) count only measures the number of people who are in shelter or transitional housing, or who are seen during street counts. However, most families and youth who are homeless do not stay in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets.

  • Of the 1.3 million homeless children and youth identified by public schools, only 3.7% were unsheltered, and 13.9% were staying in shelters. The rest were in motels or staying temporarily with others due to lack of alternatives.
  • Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America found that of the 3.5 million 18-24 year-olds and 700,000 13-17 year-olds who experienced homelessness, nearly three quarters stayed with others while lacking a home of their own – a form of homelessness that is not included in HUD’s limited methodology.

Lack of appropriate shelter options, fear of child welfare authorities and the safety of shelters, and reductions in transitional housing explain why most families and youth who are homeless are not in shelter or on the streets.

  • Shelters and transitional housing are often full, unable to serve families as a unit, do not accept unaccompanied minor youth, or simply do not exist in too many communities.  When families and youth are not able to access shelter, they are less likely to be included in HUD’s counts.
  • Homeless families also are less likely than single adults to stay on the streets and other outdoor locations where they can be included in PIT counts, often because they are afraid that their children will be removed from their custody. Unaccompanied homeless youth fear interactions with authorities and exploitation from older adults.
  • For these reasons, families and youth are much more likely to stay temporarily with other people, or in motels – situations that are themselves very unstable, often unsafe, and put them at risk of trafficking. These more hidden forms of homelessness have been shown to have impacts that are just as negative as being homeless ‘on the streets.’ They are more common in rural and suburban areas, where the PIT count results in dramatic under-counts.
  • HUD has decreased funding for transitional housing, especially for families and youth. Since 2010, there has been a loss of 5,430 temporary beds for families (shelter and transitional housing). This does not equate to a reduction in family and youth homelessness – it equates to a reduction in capacity to serve families and youth experiencing homelessness.

Other Shortcomings of the PIT Count

In addition to these profound flaws, HUD disincentivizes accurate counts by assigning more points in funding competitions to communities that demonstrate a reduction in their PIT counts. Ironically, this may encourage communities to under-count, or at least not to go to the great efforts required for accurate counts, even of people in shelters or unsheltered. In contrast, public schools have strong requirements under the McKinney-Vento Act to remove barriers to identification, and to work proactively within the school system and community to identify every child or youth experiencing homelessness. Similarly, Head Start and federally funded child care programs are required to proactively identify families experiencing homelessness.

HUD’s inaccurate methodology results in large part from HUD’s overly restrictive definition of homelessness. Unlike the definition used by other federal agencies, HUD’s definition of homeless excludes families, children, and youth who have lost or been thrown out of their housing and who are staying temporarily in motels or with other people.

It is important to note that different federal agency definitions of homelessness are unrelated to federal resources. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s more inclusive definition of homelessness was statutorily enacted in 2001, at a time when the federal funding level for the homeless education program was merely $28.8 million. This definition applies to over 17,000 school districts, all of which are mandated to provide transportation for school stability to students identified as homeless, while less than 25% receive federal McKinney-Vento subgrant funding. Similarly, the definitions of homelessness used by Head Start (enacted in a statute in 2007), child care (promulgated in 2016 regulations), and RHYA (enacted in a statute in 1999) were policy decisions adopted without respect to funding levels. Rather, these broader definitions were adopted because the definitions match the lived experience of homeless youth and families – including their unique vulnerabilities — and therefore are most appropriate for federal policies related to homeless youth and families. Federal definitions of homelessness should be tailored to the population to be served, and their unique needs; decisions about federal funding levels should be subsequent to policy decisions about appropriate eligibility for specific populations.

In sum, policymakers and the public should view HUD’s homelessness data with skepticism, particularly with respect to children, youth, and families. Communities should look to a variety of other data sources — especially public schools, early childhood programs, and youth-serving programs — to get a full and accurate local picture of the prevalence of homelessness and the needs of those who experience it.

In the last session of Congress, the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA) addressed shortcomings in HUD’s counts and made other improvements in federal policies to serve homeless families and youth. It aligned HUD’s definition of homelessness with those of other federal agencies and permitted communities to use HUD homeless funding more flexibly to assess and serve the most vulnerable homeless children, youth and families identified in their area. While the legislation focused on children and youth, it ultimately would reduce homelessness among all populations by helping to prevent today’s homeless children and youth from becoming tomorrow’s homeless adults.

The legislation is expected to be re-introduced in the 116th Congress. For more information, sign up for our e-news and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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