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The Alarming Rise in Homelessness Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 20: Homeless men panhandle on the street on November 20, 2015 in New York City. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said on Thursday that homelessness in New York City had 'exploded' over the past two years. Currently around 58,000 people are in the city's homeless shelters, a number which is up from the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
More than one in four homeless families in New York includes an employed adult.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Department of Housing and Urban Development this week reports that homelessness has ticked up by just under 1 percent, to 553,742 Americans sleeping outside or in shelters. It’s the first national increase in nearly a decade, driven almost entirely by individuals living on the streets of California cities like Los Angeles, where homelessness rose 26 percent since last year. Family homelessness, by contrast, fell by 10,000, and has fallen 10 percent in two years.

One in four homeless people in America live in Los Angeles or New York City, according to the HUD data. High-cost cities like Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C., have far more homeless residents than their population would suggest; cheaper, large cities like Chicago, Houston and Phoenix have fewer. Postulated: The housing crisis is making people homeless. “The homeless” are not a separate demographic. They are often—especially in New York and California, which account for a majority of the nation’s homeless—working people who can’t make rent.

Not everyone buys HUD’s estimates, which despite this year’s increase show homelessness falling by nearly 15 percent over the past decade. The methodology is necessarily imprecise, relying on eyewitnesses to search the streets for sleeping people over a frenzied couple of nights in January. In Los Angeles, for example, nearly 8,000 volunteers canvassed far beyond Skid Row to try and accurately count the nation’s largest outdoor homeless population. (In New York City, a right-to-shelter law ensures most homeless people are in official or makeshift shelters, such as hotel rooms—but a similar counting process happens here, too.) Research groups have argued that HUD estimates undercount even given their limited definition of homelessness.

One problem is with the definition itself: People who have saved enough to check into a cheap hotel room on the frigid January night on which the survey takes place aren’t counted.* Nor are those who sleep on the floor of someone else’s apartment. Nor are those who bounce from apartment to apartment or shack up with relatives.

“We’ve contended for a long time that these counts are a severe undercount,” Megan Hustings, the interim director at the National Coalition for the Homeless, told me. “Organizations are not seeing a decrease in the number of people seeking services and it might be quite the opposite in fact. There are more and more people unable to find any help.”

A more expansive tally comes from the Department of Education, which counted 1.36 million homeless students in 2013—in a year that HUD counted just 222,190 homeless families, including parents. But three-quarters of the DOE’s students were living doubled up with family or friends.

Whatever you think about HUD’s methodology, some things stand out. Even if homelessness is falling nationwide, it is still rising rapidly in expensive places. Over the past five years, homelessness is up by 20,000 in New York City, by 24,000 in L.A. County, and by 3,000 in Seattle. The number of homeless families in Massachusetts has doubled since 2008, according to a February report from the Boston Foundation—a period during which the state’s total homeless population rose 20 percent.

But don’t expect HUD to jump in and help these urban centers, like New York City, where the city’s nearly 13,000 homeless families with children spend an average of more than a year in city shelters. HUD chief Ben Carson told NPR, “We just need to move a little bit away from the concept that only the government can solve this problem by throwing more money at it.”

*Correction, Dec. 11, 2017: This article initially stated that the Los Angeles homelessness count does not tally people living in cars; it does.

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