Every year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) submits an Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. This report provides national estimates of homelessness based on two sources: Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) and Point-in-Time (PIT) counts. This single annual report not only serves as a final report to Congress; it sets the standard homelessness policy that will govern the entire nation.
Here is a quick snapshot of how current homelessness assistance works:
HUD calls for homeless assistance grants to be considered and proposed through regional Continuums of Care (COC). Participation in the AHAR is one of the components that communities are scored on in the COC application for federal funding. If a community score on the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA ) application is high enough, existing programs will receive funding and funding for new projects such as Permanent Supportive Housing programs. The accuracy of this report is therefore critical because it determines which communities qualify for the most funding, and which homeless prevention programs receive federal funding.
This data sets the roadmap for where funding is directed and what policies are implemented. Because of the heavy influence of the report, the source of information gathered should be reliable. But that is not the case. Here is a breakdown of where AHAR falls short:
- PIT estimates are based on the definition of “literal” homelessness: a person is homeless if he or she is staying in a shelter (an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program) or in a place not intended for human habitation (unsheltered).
- The PIT counts enlist volunteers and community organizations to physically count the homeless on a single night in January all across the county. The methodology and consistently of volunteer counters is always a concern.
- The annual count nights are publicly announced ahead of time. This allows homeless individuals (especially families and youth) the opportunity to remain hidden because they are concerned their children could be removed and placed into foster care.
- The methodology of counting is not uniformly employed across the country. Communities can form their own methodologies for conducting counts.
- Not all community organizations participate in HMIS, therefore one organization’s data could be used as the numbers for an entire area, or even state.
The 2017 AHAR Report II claims that homelessness among families with children fell by more than 21 percent between 2007 and 2017, from 234,558 people to 184,661. The inconsistency of HUD’s definition of homelessness, which does not recognize families and youth living in hotels or motels, couch surfing, or families “double-upped” in small apartments as homeless, attributes to some of this decline. The U.S. Department of Education; however, does include these situations in their definition of homelessness. In order to be eligible for HUD’s homelessness assistance programs, a person must be at “immediate risk of homelessness.” Because families who do not meet the technical definition of chronically homeless and have a roof over their heads, they are therefore not homeless, and not included in the data.
Lastly, the report is not inclusive and does not show the true scope of the problem. HUD reports annual counts of the sheltered population, but this number varies with shelter capacity, which depends on many variables such as available funding. No evidence demonstrates that increasing shelter beds decreases street homelessness. The report does not include an analysis of shelter usage and capacity. It fails to answer the most important question in homeless services, which is whether an increase in shelter beds causes a decrease in unsheltered homelessness.
Federal funding restrictions and policy preferences (as further exacerbated in this report) dictate how homelessness is addressed. Their approach is designed to serve homeless youth only in the rarest of circumstances and is biased against young families. Instead, its policies focus on ineffective interventions such as the development of more permanent supportive housing. With few dedicated homelessness resources, communities often have no other choice than to follow the government’s lead.
Community-based organizations such as Solutions for Change help those who have fallen through the cracks because they are technically not “unsheltered.” These organizations go beyond housing stability, and work to create new paths for the formerly homeless. These paths include new jobs, the completion of GED, money saved to purchase a reliable vehicle and strengthened connections between once-homeless parents and their once-homeless children. With the reduction of shelter beds, there has been an increase in demand for programs such as Solutions for Change.
The AHAR report is not only flawed because of HUD’s definitions and methodology, but because the reported decrease in family homelessness will be presented as proof that current HUD homeless policies are working well for youth and families, and need to be scaled up.