Homeless Families Finish First

New report shows startling trend in growth of homelessness

By Jeremy Flannery
Contributing Writer

Families are the rising demographic falling into homelessness in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The agency’s 2008 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress, released in July, says that between 2007 and 2008 “the number of homeless individuals was fairly stable,” with a decrease of about 7,500, “while homelessness among persons in families increased by about 43,000, or 9 percent.”

HUD defines families as consisting of at least one parent 18 years or older and one child under 18. Women under 30 years of age without male partners and with a child 5 years or younger make up the majority of homeless families, the report says.

The assessment acknowledges that its reporting period ended “just as the economic recession was accelerating,” so estimates of the number of homeless families might be more dismal today.

Georgine Getty, the executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which assists homeless families, says the recession has created more first-time homeless people.

“We are starting to notice more and more first-time homeless people because of the economy and people losing their jobs and having to foreclose on their homes,” she says. “I spoke to one guy, and he said at first his hours were cut and then he was laid off, and so he lost his home. We are experiencing greater lengths of stays in shelters because no one is able to find work because of the economy.”

The Interfaith Hospitality Network assists about 110 homeless families per year, and two-thirds of the people assisted by the organization are children, Getty says.

HUD’s homelessness assessment says 1.6 million people nationwide, or 1 out of 190 people, used homeless shelters or transitional housing programs between October 2007 and September, 2008. Twenty percent of them were children, the report says.

While suburban and rural areas are facing dramatic increases in homelessness among individuals and families, homelessness continues to disproportionately impact metropolitan areas. One out of five homeless persons in the United States were in Los Angeles, New York City or Detroit during the point-in-time count on Jan. 1, 2008. The report shows that homelessness is concentrated in major cities such as Las Vegas, where 91 percent of Nevada’s homeless population live; Phoenix, with 60 percent of Arizona’s homeless population; and Philadelphia, with 50 percent of Pennsylvania’s homeless population.

The most common demographic of sheltered homeless people are individual male members of racial minorities older than 31 years, and two-fifths of them suffer from a disability, the report says. About 124,135 homeless persons were chronically homeless, or homeless for at least one year, according to the report’s January 2008 point-in-time estimate. The number remained relatively unchanged from the 2007 estimate, the report says.

The 2008 assessment says more homeless individuals now are people with relatively high needs. The number of people entering homeless shelters in 2008 increasingly came from prisons or hospitals or reported suffering disabilities, the report says. Such people are either physically restricted from the type of labor they can perform or denied employment due to their criminal records. Also, about 13 percent of the sheltered homeless during the 2008 count were U.S. military veterans, and their numbers are expected to increase during the 2009 count, the report says.

HUD is adding new counts to assess chronic homelessness among former prisoners and the disabled, along with the Iraq War and Afghanistan War veterans returning without a home. The 2009 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report will also measure the success of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which allocated $1.5 billion for a Homelessness Prevention Fund.