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What we can learn from U.S. cities where homelessness is trending downward

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Dec 6, 2023
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"What the data tells us over and over again is that homelessness rates are driven primarily by the housing market," said Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Mario Tama/Getty Images

What we can learn from U.S. cities where homelessness is trending downward

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Dec 6, 2023
Heard on:
"What the data tells us over and over again is that homelessness rates are driven primarily by the housing market," said Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Mario Tama/Getty Images
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We’ll soon have new federal data that will provide a sort of snapshot into the homelessness crisis across the country.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, often referred to as HUD, is expected to release the findings from its annual Point-In-Time count later this month. But the homeless services sector already has a pretty good understanding of the latest trends.

To get a preview of what the data might entail, Marketplace’s David Brancaccio connected with Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: So you’ll be watching this data set, but it won’t come from nowhere. I mean, you’re already seeing the trends.

Ann Oliva: That’s right. And when we think about trends here at the National Alliance [to End Homelessness], we think about them in terms of like, what is all the data telling us? What HUD is going to release hopefully later this month is, as you mentioned, a snapshot. But we tend to look at all of the different kinds of data and reports that HUD puts out over the course of the year. And then we also like to hear from our communities and visit communities and hear from people experiencing homelessness. So we get the most comprehensive picture that we can here at the Alliance.

Brancaccio: What are the trends you’re already seeing? There are new demands on homelessness remediation systems.

Oliva: Yeah, you know, when I think about both what we’ve seen so far in the data and what we’ve heard from community, I think that we’re likely to see an across-the-board uptick when HUD releases the results of the 2023 Point-In-Time Count, hopefully later this month. And that will continue a trend that started back in 2016 and picked up a little bit of momentum in 2020. We also expect to see places where homelessness is going in the right direction, which is down. For example, we’ve seen really good numbers in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they’re really working on driving down the number of people who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness. I think we’re going to see some decreases in Minnesota, hopefully in the Twin Cities, and in a few other places where maybe the housing market isn’t quite as tight and homeless systems are able to meet the need in better ways.

Brancaccio: Renewed pressure is coming from people who are fleeing violence and political persecution in their native countries, asylum seekers who come to the U.S.

Oliva: That’s right. So when we look at all of the data that HUD has released so far this year, we’ve seen that households across the board are facing higher housing instability and needs than ever before. And we know that rents remain sky high in many, many places. And all of this is happening just as COVID relief funds are ending. And then we also see, as you mentioned, an inflow of asylum seekers into cities and states across the country that are impacting homeless services systems. And then we also know from the data that people are becoming homeless faster than they can be rehoused. So our systems are working as well as they can, but HUD still finds that on average, about 17,000 new people entered homelessness systems each week in 2022. Another way to think about that is something to the effect of, on average, about 900,000 people exit homelessness each year — and that was between 2017 and 2020 — and during that same time period, on average, nearly 910,000 people entered homelessness. So you can see that our systems are not able to keep up for a variety of reasons, including the housing market, including an inflow of asylum seekers.

Pandemic-era aid provides a blueprint

Brancaccio: I mean, some of this is demand on the system. But are there ways perhaps to think about streamlining rules to be able to speed up and reduce the time that it takes to find new accommodation?

Oliva: So I think that there are a number of factors that are impacting homeless services systems that are not inside of the homeless services system itself. It’s really coming from external factors. The number of days it takes to find a unit, certainly there are different kinds of policies and practices that can be put into place in order to help folks find units. For example, during the pandemic, Congress appropriated funding for a program called emergency housing vouchers. And those funds came with a number of flexibilities that allowed providers to offer incentives to landlords to provide services so that folks could access units that were available. And there was a lot of skepticism when those funds were initially appropriated. Folks were saying, “Oh, there’s no way that the homeless services systems are going to be able to find units and get those leased up as quickly as they need to.” And in fact, homeless services systems leased up emergency housing vouchers faster than any other set-aside program, voucher program, previously. So we —

Brancaccio: Interesting.

Oliva: Yeah! We know that homeless systems can really use those flexibilities and use policies that allow them to have the kind of flexibility they need in this housing market and the kinds of incentives that they need to use locally to really good use — they can put all of that to really good use.

Brancaccio: Let me pick up on one of your themes here, which is I’ve seen data showing that a major cause of homelessness is, it’s too expensive to find a place to live, it’s affordability. And there’s this irony the other day, we reported on a jump in home prices in the Detroit real estate market. So some might read that as, “Wow, signs of life for that economy, signs of life for a very difficult housing market.” Yet, if housing is turning up in Detroit, that’s going to cause pressure on people who need affordable housing.

Oliva: That’s right. What the data tells us over and over again is that homelessness rates are driven primarily by the housing market, when rents increase and the rent is more than around 30% of the households’ income, rates of homelessness increase in those same communities. So that’s what the data tells us. So it is concerning when we start to see markets that have been a little bit easier for us to work in really tightening up in the way that you just described. So we have to get in front of it. That means that we need appropriations for things like prevention and making sure that people can stay in their units so that we can drive down the number of folks who are experiencing homelessness, many for the first time.

Brancaccio: You mentioned just a couple of places where you’re seeing some efforts bear fruit to address homelessness. One place, for instance, you mentioned was Chattanooga. What’s the approach there as you understand it?

Oliva: Well, Chattanooga, as I understand it, they really made a very strong effort to revamp some of the work that they’re doing locally to address the needs of people who are living unsheltered. And their housing market wasn’t quite as tight as what we’re seeing on the West Coast, for example. So they were able to really use the COVID-era dollars to help them meet the moment. And they also lead with lived experience of homelessness. So in a number of their leadership positions, they’ve had people who have experienced homelessness themselves and who can really help refine how the programs respond to the needs of people who are living unsheltered.

Brancaccio: And help me with your sense of an important federal appeals court ruling out on the West Coast that seems to limit the ability of local and state officials to ban homeless encampments unless there are real alternatives to be offered to people.

Oliva: Yeah, that ruling is is really important in our sector. We know that housing ends homelessness. When we criminalize people or sweep or evict, forcibly evict people from encampments who have nowhere else to go, that isn’t a strategic decision — that tends to be a political decision. And the strategic decision is to ensure that we have the resources that are available for folks who have nowhere else to go. And that’s both housing and services. And while we’re building the housing and accessing the services, in some communities, it also means increasing the number of shelter beds that are available, so that folks have a safe place to be at night. I think what we’re seeing around the pushback on that particular case, the Martin v. Boise case, is concerning to us at the National Alliance, because what it doesn’t do is actually solve homelessness and actually, it hinders our system’s ability to address the needs of people who are living in encampments and who are living unsheltered.

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