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Point-in-time count masks increase in homeless families living in shelter

by Anna Simonsen-Meehan and Diana Scholl -  12/13/2012

"HUD Reports Dip in Homelessness" was one of the many headlines that heralded the annual point-in-time count results that HUD released Monday. But this sound bite masks the reality of rising numbers of homeless families, particularly those living in shelters.

While the report provides a lengthy discussion on the decline of chronic and veteran homelessness, it only glances at homeless families, for whom it cites a -3.7% decrease between 2007–12. But this figure disguises huge differences in unsheltered (defined by HUD as "people who live in places not meant for human habitation, such as the streets, campgrounds, abandoned buildings, vehicles, or parks") and sheltered families (those living in temporary or transitional shelters). See the breakdown below:

Percent Change in Persons in Homeless Families (by shelter type and year)

Persons in homeless families

Percent change 2007–12

Percent change 2011­­–12










Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD’s CoC Homeless Assistance Programs—Homeless Populations and Subpopulations, 2007–12.

We need to be skeptical when we look at this data. To start, there are certainly logistical challenges for counting unsheltered households. Methodologies and efforts of enumeration are more art than science, and yearly results can be impacted by everything from a snowstorm to the number and experience of volunteers, which can change year to year.

Comparisons of sheltered homelessness at any point in time are also problematic. Their numbers are largely dependent on the amount of shelter beds available in each community. Increases and decreases in emergency shelter and transitional housing bed capacity mirror the increases and decreases in the number of families served by each bed type nationwide. For example, between 2007–12, a 13.3% increase in family emergency shelter capacity was paired with a 14.4% increase in the numbers served in emergency shelters. Coincidence? We think not.

Examining changes in both sheltered and unsheltered families simultaneously is not comparing apples to apples, and can lead to erroneous conclusions.  The point-in-time numbers chosen by HUD run counter to what service providers and advocates witness in their communities, where the number of families they are sheltering has increased 7.1% since 2007. (See chart below).

Number of Persons in Homeless Families

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,  HUD’s CoC Homeless Assistance Programs—Homeless Populations and Subpopulations, 2007–12; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Annual Homeless Assessment Reports to Congress, 2010–11.

For example, here in New York City—where homeless families are guaranteed shelter regardless of bed capacity—the number of family members in shelter on the night of the count surged by 9.9% between 2011 and 2012.

The vast majority of homeless families live doubled up with family or friends, and can only access shelter when beds become available. These families are not counted at all in HUD’s point-in-time count even though they are considered homeless by the Department of Education. While subject to some of the same limitations as point-in-time counts, a better way to look at the change in needs of homeless families is to examine utilization of shelter beds over the course of a year, rather than on a single night each January. The number of families in homeless shelters tends to fluctuate throughout the year, increasing during summer months, when family and friends grow tired of supporting doubled-up families when children are home from school. Throughout 2010, one-fifth (19.8%) more families accessed shelter than in 2007 (2011 data has not been released by HUD yet).

Declaring to communities nationwide that family homelessness has decreased over the past five years is not constructive or supportive to the countless providers, advocates, and government officials who work tirelessly to actually reduce the number of families with children experiencing homelessness. HUD’s point-in-time count masks the fact that the number of families living in shelter has grown steadily and can be expected to swell further if more attention and resources are not dedicated to these vulnerable families and their children.

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