Is Chronic Homelessness Really Decreasing?

HUD has a released a report based on the January 2007 point in time count of the homeless which shows that chronic homelessness has dropped 12% nationwide, with 20,000 individuals moving from the street to permanent supportive housing. This is part of the federal government’s “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness” initiative, and Guilford County has a task force and a plan of our own. (We meet next week to plan our next steps in the local process.) But some people are asking if chronic homelessness is really decreasing?

From USA Today:

“We’re not helping everybody,” says Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. He says increases in federal funding for homelessness are a “drop in the bucket” and do not offset cuts in entitlement programs that he says have exacerbated the problem.

Stoops says he’s “very skeptical” of HUD’s numbers, adding that it’s “almost impossible” to count homeless people. He says people who work with the homeless do not see an overall decline. He says he wonders whether some homeless people are no longer being counted because they’ve been pushed out of downtowns into neighborhoods that do not provide as many services or track the issue as closely.

I agree with Stoops that homeless people are extremely difficult to count. The annual count is at best an estimate of the minimum number of homeless people in a community. And the estimate of chronic homelessness is a moving target, as well. For instance, we counted 96 chronically homeless people in Guilford County in 2006, but in 2007, we counted 212. Was there really a dramatic increase during that year? Probably not. My guess is that chronic homelessness was under-counted in 2006.

In order to determine who is chronically homeless, we rely on self-reports of those we count on the street, and that means we interview and ask them about the number of times they’ve been homeless, and about mental health and substance abuse use — topics they’re not always comfortable disclosing to homeless counters. And if they meet the criteria but don’t tell us, they don’t get counted as chronic, even when they are. And in doing shelter counts, staff may not always be aware of who meets the criteria to be counted as chronically homeless. So again, those numbers are hard to get. As is the total number of homeless people, because it’s just impossible to count everyone, because we don’t find everyone who is homeless on the day we do the count.

(Now multiply the homeless count challenges times every community in the country and you get the national numbers. So… not hard and fast numbers. Estimates. Minimum numbers. Definitely better than nothing.)

So what do we know? I know what I know from doing street outreach, and we’re seeing more people on the street. But, I’ve also seen the new housing support team move more than two dozen of our long-time chronically homeless friends off the street and into permanent supportive housing — and that is progress and hope and great news! So are the numbers of chronically homeless people really decreasing? Well, there are at least 25 less chronically homeless people on the street in Greensboro, and I am very thankful for that.