A Snapshot of Homelessness in America

by devteam July 3rd, 2010 | Share

Thernsimple numbers in subgroups like individuals, families, and youth do not beginrnto explain homelessness.  Within each ofrnthose subgroups are not only additional population segments, but a menu of problemsrnthat have led to their personal crisis.</p

Much ofrnthe data in the report we have been citing, Opening Doors:  Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and EndrnHomelessness, came from the Department of Housing and UrbanrnDevelopment (HUD)'s AnnualrnHomeless Assessment Report (AHAR) for 2009. rnThat report gathered its data from a single-night Point-in-Time (PIT) nationalrncount of the homeless taken in January, 2009 and an ongoing longitudinal databaserncollected from 334 communities which represented nearly 3000 counties and overrn1000 cities that contributed to the Homeless Management Information Systemrn(HMIS) in 2009. The most compelling picture of homelessness comes from the PITrndata; just who was homeless on that single winter night?</p

643,000rnpersons did not have stable homes that night but more than six out of ten werernat least in shelters or transitional housing programs, leaving 37 percent literallyrn”on the street” or somewhere less than suitable for human habitationrnsuch as in abandoned building or cars.  Nearly 111,000 of the homeless that night metrnthe definition of chronically homeless, an unaccompanied individual with arndisabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year orrnmore or who has had four or more episodes of homelessness in the previous fourrnyears.  These chronically homeless representedrn27 person of all homeless individuals (at the time of the PIT, families couldrnnot be considered chronically homeless, a definition that has now changed), 21rnpercent of the sheltered and 35 percent of the unsheltered.</p

Nearly 4rnin 10 or 37.8 percent of the sheltered adults that night suffered from somerndisability including substance abuse or mental illness.  Disabilities occur in 26.2 percent of thernpopulation living in poverty and 15.5 percent of the general population.  The higher disability rates are expectedrnbecause disabilities can make it difficult to work enough to afford housing andrnpeople with disabilities suffer higher rates of housing discrimination.  Four percent of the homeless adults werernsuffering from HIV/AIDS.        </p

59,390rnVeterans were counted in the PIT and 13 percent of the adults counted in sheltersrnthat night were veterans.  Any combinationrnof those figures probably seriously undercounts homeless Vets as it is thoughtrnthey are disproportionately unsheltered and that PIT count does not containrnmuch in the way of demographic data.  Anecdotalrninformation suggests that many Veterans do not divulge that status to homelessrnprogram staffs and many of the VA funded programs for the homeless are not partrnof the AHAR database.  The VA itself estimatesrnthat 107,000 Vets are homeless on any given night and it is widely accepted thatrnthe percentage of Veterans in the homeless population is much higher than inrnthe general population.</p

Veteransrnhave high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brainrninjury, and sexual trauma (especially among women).  These rates are higher still among Vetsrnreturning from Iraq and Afghanistan after repeated deployments.  Many of these Iraq War Vets are women andrnmany of those are homeless with families.</p

No onernreally knows how many unaccompanied youth are among homeless individuals.  Youth under 18 accounted for less than 1rnpercent of the PIT count while the longitudinal study estimated their numbersrnat 22,700 or about 2.2 percent of sheltered homeless.  It is widely agreed that even this is arnserious undercount; there are indications that up to 110,000 youth are living onrnthe street and in cars, abandoned buildings, and other locations.  It is estimated that this number is evenlyrndivided between youths 18 to 24 and young teenagers age 12 to 17.</p

Thesernyoung people often leave home because of severe family conflicts or physicalrnand/or sexual abuse.  Others have agedrnout of foster care and still others are separated from their families becausernfamily shelters rules often do not permit residence by adolescent males.  </p

If thesernyoung people have not dropped out of school before becoming homeless, theyrnusually do so soon after.  They exhibit arnhigh incidence of depression, suicide, and other mental health problems andrnchronic health conditions such as asthma, TB, hypertension, and substancernabuse.  They are much more likely thanrnthe general population to abuse their own children and to engage in riskyrnbehavior such as selling drugs and/or sex, panhandling, or stealing.  Homeless youth are arrested and convicted atrna high rate and many of the unaccompanied young females are pregnant orrnparenting. </p

On ourrnsnapshot night, canvassers counted 238,110 people in families, 79 percent of whomrnwere sheltered and over the course of the year 535,447 were served by shelters.  Only a small number used shelters more thanrnonce.  As we said earlier, the head ofrnthese households is usually a single woman in her late 20s with two children,rnat least one of which was of kindergarten age or younger.  These families are marked by extremely lowrnincomes, have less access to housing subsidies than other low-income families,rnand belong to weaker social networks that cannot offer them muchrnassistance.  Some of these families wererndisplaced by foreclosure, typically when their landlords defaulted onrnmortgages. </p

Victimsrnof domestic violence accounted for 12 percent of the sheltered population, andrnit is known that such domestic abuse makes women and children vulnerable tornhomelessness. Among mothers with children living in shelters, over 80 percent werernprevious victims.   As domestic violence can include a financialrnaspect, women who leave their abuser often find they have poor credit and nornmoney to support themselves and their families. rnMany of the emergency shelters for battered women limit residents to 90rndays residence in order to make room for new people so many single women andrnfamilies find themselves in unsuitable housing or doubling up with family orrnfriends, a situation where their abusers are often able to locate them.  Many give up and return to live with theirrnabusers.  A separate count of victims ofrndomestic violence taken in 2009 found that on a single day, 65,300 adults andrnchildren sought services after leaving life-threatening abuse and on that samernday, more than 32,000 adult and child victims were in emergency shelters orrntransitional housing. </p

Homelessnessrnin and of itself is very traumatizing for children and because it is oftenrnaccompanied by health problems and violence, these children are at high riskrnfor emotional problems like anxiety, depression, withdrawal, and manifestationsrnof aggressive behavior.  The transient naturernof their schooling leads to poor academic performance.</p

Familiesrnwithout a stable address can lose eligibility for social services and income support,rnand homelessness itself can contribute to family separations.  As mentioned, adolescent boys can be forcedrnto leave their families because of shelter policies, and mothers with at leastrnone episode of homelessness are far more likely to have their children removedrninto foster care than other mothers who are involved with child welfarernservices.  Reinserting fostered childrenrnback into families is more difficult when parents cannot provide a suitablernenvironment for their children.</p

It canrnbe hard to separate the causes of homelessness from some of its effects, and,rnwhile many causes are unique to one or two of the sub-populations, othersrnunderlie homelessness across the board.  Somernof these causes/effects are evident from the preceding discussion and othersrnwill be touched on in a later article along with some of the current programsrnthat are attempting to address the problem.   </p


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About the Author


Steven A Feinberg (@CPAsteve) of Appletree Business Services LLC, is a PASBA member accountant located in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

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