Commentary: COVID Emergency Measures Succeeded in Reducing Sheltered Homelessness

LOS ANGELES, CA –  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

It is a modest decline for sure, but experts are hopeful that emergency measures implemented during COVID can work longer term to reduce homelessness.

In a report released last week, the annual report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that more than 326,000 people experienced sheltered homelessness on a single night in the U.S. in 2021—but that marked an eight percent decline from the previous year which would have taken place pre-pandemic.

In its Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), the data was based on a point-in-time count conducted in January 2021 and is believed to reflect the impact of emergency housing assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge said the decrease from 2020 “suggest(s) that federal COVID-19 relief had positive impacts on sheltered homelessness.”  The administration, she said, would continue to lean on COVID relief funds as well as other resources to help alleviate homelessness.

There is reason for caution here.  For instance, the National Alliance to End Homelessness warned that the AHAR data may not provide a full picture of the homelessness situation, because the pandemic hindered if not prevented data collection from the estimated 40 percent of the homeless population that is unsheltered on a given night.

“While many populations clearly benefitted from the emergency resources and services available to them, others faced greater challenges,” the group warned.  “The number of chronically homeless people in shelter increased by 20 percent in 2021. This includes many of the highest-need individuals.”

For instance, the number of Permanent Supportive Housing units also declined.

“Although the full impact of CARES Act resources and other federal provisions to support vulnerable Americans is not yet fully realized or documented, it appears that they played an essential role in stemming the inflow of people into homelessness, while bolstering the homelessness sector’s abilities to serve those without homes,” the group said.

Nan Roman added, “These numbers demonstrate that federal investments can reduce homelessness and save lives. Subsequent investments via the American Rescue Plan Act, including housing vouchers and funding for affordable housing acquisition and development, appear to be expanding that impact.”

She warned, “they are still not sufficient to help everyone.”

She added, “If we wish to build on the progress that can be attributed to COVID-19 relief measures, it will be essential to pass the housing provisions in the Build Back Better Act, and to increase Congress’ annual appropriations to support homelessness programs. Without continued investment, we anticipate homelessness will rise again in the coming months.”

Still, advocacy groups believe this may point the way to the future.  Early in the pandemic, the government implemented a number of emergency measures to keep people housed during the economic turmoil.  That included everything from a moratorium on evictions, to rental assistance and mortgage payment forbearance.

Samantha Batko, principal research associate at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center told Smart Cities Dive  the data shows that the measures likely helped keep people off the streets.

“Because there were so many emergency resources directed at families, the decrease in the number of families experiencing sheltered homelessness likely is a result of measures like eviction moratoria and the rental assistance funneled into communities,” she said. “It’s challenging to know just with this count if that is the case for sure. Families could be experiencing homelessness in other situations, or just avoiding shelters because of COVID, but I would expect the moratoria played a role.”

Gary Painter, who directs the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation and the Homelessness Policy pointed to the purchasing of hotel and motel rooms to house people as critical.

California for example implemented and has extended Project Roomkey program to offer temporary housing.

“This shows that you can move quickly to house people if you have the resources,” Painter told Dive. “People who would have felt uncomfortable or unsafe in a standard setting were able to be housed in a hotel or motel situation. It was quite positive to show that something like this could be done.”

There are still concerns.  For example, a June 2021 report from the Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies warned of a “wave” of foreclosures and evictions without further assistance.

Dive notes, “Many cities have tried to extend or modify their housing programs — especially by offering more aid and legal and technical assistance to renters — to keep people housed. “

“We know from previous research … that actually making eviction a little more difficult has significant impacts on reducing homelessness,” Painter said. “We had this catastrophic experiment as it relates to housing stability, and so far, it looks like the eviction moratorium did matter in reducing homelessness. It speaks to the idea that maybe the balance of power between renters and landlords and property owners needs to shift if we’re going to reduce the broad social outcomes that we know are harmful.”

We have learned a lot here—but can we put the resources in long term to actually reduce homelessness?

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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11 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    There are still concerns.  For example, a June 2021 report from the Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies warned of a “wave” of foreclosures and evictions without further assistance.

    I was watching a YouTube video last night (there’s lots of them on there regarding housing, but this one guy seems pretty bright).

    He believes that the combination of stimulus money, rental assistance, and eviction moratoriums have created “artificial demand” for rental housing.  (In other words, by eliminating evictions and the threat of evictions in which renters would normally find other arrangements – combined with stimulus money, the result has been a much lower vacancy rate – and higher rental prices.)

    Now that this assistance has ended (or will soon end), there will be a wave of evictions.  And since rental prices have risen beyond what renters can pay without assistance, there will be a crash in the market.

    He’s essentially noting the same thing as the quote above, but adding more background information regarding what led to this.

    Not sure if this is the same video I saw, but it’s the same guy:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0amBn9m9dc

    There’s similar predictions regarding the “for sale” housing market, as well.

    Of course, a crash is not necessarily a bad thing in an overheated market.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Just to clarify, that quote is from the Vanguard article (not me).  🙂

        But if you really want to “shift power”, rent control is probably the most-effective way to do so.

        But homelessness is not necessarily tied to the rental/housing market, regardless.

        Seems to me that homelessness congregates where it’s tolerated and facilitated, more than anything else.

  2. Bill Marshall

     that emergency measures implemented during COVID can work longer term to reduce homelessness.

    Commentary: COVID Emergency Measures Succeeded in Reducing Sheltered Homelessness

    Title seems wrong… (where is Highbeam when you need her?)

    Do you mean ‘unsheltered homeless?’

    By and large, the content of the commentary is true… and, as another pointed out, perhaps temporary, particularly due to inflation… and many other factors…

    We’ll have to ‘wait and see’… being ‘sheltered’, particularly with adverse weather, should be a basic priority for society… not necessarily long-term ‘affordable housing’, and certainly not ‘affordable’ home ownership… basic shelter from the elements should be the ‘floor’ everyone should be able to agree on… no guarantees as to prosperity, but guarantees, or at least available opportunities, as to basic survival… if folk choose not to take those opportunities, that’s on them.

  3. Ron Oertel

    We have learned a lot here—but can we put the resources in long term to actually reduce homelessness?

    Not sure that we have “learned a lot here”, but the answer to your question is “no”.

    LA Is Paying $600,000 Apiece for Units to House Homeless People

    LA Paying $600,000 Apiece for Units to House Homeless People – Bloomberg

    It’s probably making some “non-profit” housing developers pretty wealthy on a personal level, though. As well as the construction industry behind it.

    So, at least they won’t be homeless.

  4. Chris Griffith

    In the old days these people would simply aquire a canoe, an ax and head out for the frontier to become a fur trapper I wonder if Daniel Boone would be a homeless person today

      1. Ron Oertel

        Thought I’d check – “no”, it was Davy Crocket.  Or perhaps, Fess Parker.  🙂

        Or, maybe all three were the same guy.

        By the way, is Grizzly Man and Grizzly Adams the same guy?

  5. Chris Griffith

    Maybe we need a new frontier to conquer that would help solve the homeless problem 😊 maybe those Russians are onto something I noticed they don’t have a serious homeless problem like we do.

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