After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be time to ask: how has the pandemic affected the number of people experiencing homelessness?

It’s complicated to give an answer to that question, because one key basis for assessing homelessness numbers is what’s called the “Point in Time” (PIT) Count conducted annually by local agencies partnering with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Conducted on one night in the last part of January, this survey distinguishes between “sheltered homelessness”, such as living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, or another interim situation and unsheltered homelessness. Neither count catches everyone who’s homeless; it won’t catch, for example, people couch-surfing with family or friends, or those who are purposely avoiding contact with the wider world. Overall, though, the PIT Count offers a valuable snapshot for homelessness advocates and policy makers to use in their work.

But here’s the catch: it takes HUD time to process the data, back in February of this year, the agency published data from the 2021 survey. This data, therefore, while important for providing information about homelessness in the US overall and individual communities, is only an imperfect snapshot of what’s going on right now.

All that said, what does the 2021 data show? Some key findings:

• On the date of the 2021 PIT Count, more than 326,000 people experienced sheltered homelessness, representing a decrease of 8% from 2020. (Due to the pandemic, in 2021 HUD waived the requirement to count the unsheltered homeless.)

• The bulk of that decline came in families with children (-15%), who represented 40% of those experiencing sheltered homelessness; the number of sheltered homeless individuals was fairly stable (-2%), and they made up the remaining 60% of the homeless.

• There was a 10% decline in the number of sheltered homeless veterans.

• People of color still comprise a disproportionate number of those experiencing homelessness, comprising 45% of the sheltered homeless.

HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge notes that the numbers suggest federal COVID-19 relief helped homeless individuals, though she argues that the problem of homelessness still needs serious attention. As what often happens with statistics, the devil is in the details: the 8% decline looks good, and some of it may derive from election moratoriums and direct federal assistance to individuals (though that assistance often proved hard for homeless individuals to access), but some of the decline may have been due to lower capacity in shelters that tried to meet COVID distancing requirements.

Furthermore, eviction moratoriums have ended in PA and elsewhere, and the supply of affordable housing remains low. Prior to the lapse of the federal eviction moratorium, 15 million people were at risk of eviction, but lack of data on evictions at the federal level makes the problem hard to track. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, nationally only 37 affordable rental units are available for every 100 extremely low-income renters.

Homelessness can often seem like an intractable problem, but good numbers, good policy, and good works by the community can real positive effects.

This article includes information and quotes taken from the HUD No. 22-022 press release, published February 4 and available at Joanne Myers is a CARES board member.

Joanne Myers is a CARES board member.

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