The number of homeless people in the United States increased slightly for the second year in a row, a concerning setback after seven years of progress and decline.
About 553,000 people nationwide were homeless on a single night in January 2018, according to a report released Tuesday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That is a 0.3 percent increase from HUD’s finding last year for its annual report on homelessness, which looks at nationwide trends using local data from a given day in January.
Of those who were homeless, about two-thirds stayed in shelters or transitional housing, while about one-third were considered “unsheltered,” meaning they were sleeping on the street, in abandoned buildings, or other places “not suitable for human habitation.”
The U.S. is facing an ongoing affordable housing crisis, as housing costs have risen far faster than incomes over the past few decades. Advocates for the homeless say that governments at the federal, state and local levels have not done enough to make more affordable housing available.
“The big picture on homelessness is that it’s a problem we shouldn’t be experiencing,” said Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “We know what to do about it: you need short-term crisis responses for if people lose housing ... and you need to make progress on affordable housing.”
“There’s a large number of Americans unable to afford a decent place to live,” he added.
There was some progress from 2017 to 2018 in tackling homelessness for certain groups. The HUD report found declines in family homelessness, which went down 2.7 percent, and veteran homelessness, which went down 5 percent.
One reason for such progress is that “there’s more money on the table for homeless programs that serve veterans than homeless programs more generally,” Berg said.
Meanwhile, there was a 2 percent increase in the number of homeless people living “unsheltered” ― or 4,300 more people living in places unsuitable for human habitation, according to the report.
Homelessness continues to disproportionately affect communities of color, with African-Americans “considerably overrepresented” among the homeless population, HUD stated. While black people represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 40 percent of the country’s homeless.
Last year, thousands of people were driven into homelessness by natural disasters. In January 2018, 3,900 people were staying in shelters for people displaced by national disasters, including hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and wildfires on the West Coast, according to the report.
There’s reason to expect next year’s report will reflect thousands more left homeless by natural disasters. This year two devastating hurricanes hit the U.S. southeast within a month, and California faced its largest and deadliest wildfires in state history.