Is Homelessness Really Falling? Probably Not

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According to government data, the number of homeless people sleeping on the streets has fallen by 32% since 2007. Officials have interpreted the downward trend as evidence that we have finally learned what it takes to solve homelessness. Are they right?

Probably not. In a new study, I find that miscounting the homeless appears to play a major role in the reported decline. City ordinances that criminalize homelessness (such as restrictions on sharing food with the homeless or preventing them from lying down in public) may contribute to the decline as well. Meanwhile, policies focused on providing permanent housing for the homeless appear to play only a minor role. Given that the overall reduction in homelessness in recent years relies completely on the plummeting street counts, the administration's progress toward ending homelessness should be questioned.

Why the skepticism over these numbers? For one thing, counting the unsheltered homeless -- those who sleep on sidewalks, in parks, in their cars, in abandoned buildings and under bridges -- is an extremely difficult task. The fact that communities form their own methodologies for conducting counts, or that they are carried out by volunteers with little training, doesn't help. Furthermore, annual count nights are publicly announced ahead of time, giving distrustful homeless individuals the opportunity to remain hidden.

Abrupt changes in counts in particular areas cast doubt on their accuracy as well. Between 2007 and 2009, the street homeless count in Detroit fell by over 13,000 people (a 98% decrease). Over the same period, the Los Angeles street count fell by over 17,000 people (a 47% decrease). Between 2011 and 2014, Tampa's street count fell by over 5,000 people (an 83% decrease). Over the same period, the state of Colorado -- excluding the Denver and Colorado Springs areas -- saw its street count fall by over 7,000 people (an 88% decrease). These four examples alone account for over half of the national street count reduction since 2007.

One possible explanation for abrupt changes in street counts is changes to counting methodologies. Another is increased homeless criminalization, which could quickly push the homeless either out of sight of counters or into housing. The 47% decrease in Los Angeles between 2007 and 2009, for instance, came in the midst of a major crackdown on low-level offenses on Skid Row. Florida experienced a less dramatic but still very large 40% decrease in street homelessness between 2011 and 2014 -- meanwhile, the state is regarded as a "leader" in homeless criminalization.

Another reason to doubt falling street counts is that the number of people in shelters has remained steady. This is true not just for families -- who are rarely found sleeping on the streets -- but for single individuals as well. Also, places which guarantee residents a right to shelter when they have nowhere else to go have experienced a major increase in their shelter rolls. If anything, it appears that the demand for shelter has actually gone up. And because places without a right to shelter must turn people away, the reported decline in street homelessness is even more surprising.

An alternative explanation for falling street counts is a substantial investment in permanently housing the homeless. Since 2007, the United States has added more permanent beds (in which tenants are no longer defined as homeless) than the number of people taken off the streets.

However, housing does not appear to be driving the decline. The people who are homeless one year are different than the people who are homeless the following year. So ending someone's homelessness with permanent housing may not reduce homelessness in the long run. In fact, the 22 communities which each experienced street count reductions of more than 1,000 people since 2007 account for 86% of the national street count reduction. Yet, the same communities added only 17% of the country's new permanent beds. More housing is not the primary factor pushing street counts down.

Based on the evidence, it is difficult to maintain that we are successfully ending homelessness as a whole in the United States. The problem with claiming otherwise is that it feeds a false narrative -- that we can end homelessness without a massive increase in spending. As a result we invest heavily in solutions that end homelessness in the short run, but invest too little in solutions that help people in the long run.

The almost 60% increase in permanent beds since 2007 surely helps the people who receive them. But what happens in two years when more people enter homelessness, when funding is tied up in permanent assistance, and when higher quality numbers no longer feed the "ending homelessness" narrative? Will funding for emergency services dry up? Will transitional programs which actively seek to address underlying issues be forced to close their doors?

Despite these concerns, there is nonetheless a lot of good being done by the administration to make some of our practices more efficient. They are encouraging cities to target the most expensive interventions to the highest need individuals and to invest in measures to prevent homelessness. Moreover, the number of homeless veterans has fallen dramatically as spending on this group has surged.

But it's time to be honest about homelessness in America. Truly ending it would require a massive and sustained increase in funding -- in addition to more efficient practices.

Until then, our solutions must stop promoting short-term political interests at the expense of a smart, sustainable system for our most needy brothers and sisters. One that offers people somewhere to turn when there is no other place to go. And one that doesn't just house people, but actively seeks to address their underlying challenges. Otherwise, short-term political victories could end up weakening the safety net for our most vulnerable.