By David M. Greenwald
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?