Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is homelessness really down? You be the judge

Is homelessness decreasing? The Department of Housing and Urban Development says so; this week HUD announced that chronic homelessness decreased by 30 percent between 2005 and 2007, resulting in 52,000 people who used to be homeless now housed..

The credit goes largely to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, headed by Philip Mangano, which has involved hundreds of cities in developing ten year plans to end chronic homelessness. We've certainly needed a national strategy on homelessness, and Mangano is a sincere guy. Still, he's working in the middle of an federal administration that not only has not produced new affordable housing, but whose less than benign neglect of the Federal Reserve, Wall St. and housing speculators has lead to an unprecedented foreclosure crisis. What's wrong with this picture?

So how did we get this reduction in homelessness? At least part of the reason is that HUD has changed its definition of homelessness! This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. I remember when it was standard operating procedure in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to generate regulations limiting eligibility for family shelter. Then, the commonwealth could claim that family homelessness was down and they actually closed some shelters! The author of Blog de Ford has participated in HUD's annual homeless count and decries the surveying method.

Much of the Interagency's strategy for reducing homelessness is built around the concept of Housing First. Ironically, that's what homeless advocates from Mitch Snyder's day onward have been saying. But we meant new housing, not just shuffling poor people around. Joel John Roberts at LA's Homeless Blog has this to say:
Logic tells us that the only way to truly reduce the number of people who are homeless on the streets is to place them in permanent housing—preferably “Permanent Supportive Housing”, housing linked to support services.
So did Los Angeles build 17,000 Permanent Supportive Housing units in two years? Give me a break. With the loss of existing low income housing (converted to market rate housing) and the building of new affordable housing units, LA barely broke even. And this was for low-income housing, not housing for the homeless.
Philadelphia bucked the purported national trend; homelessness increased. Mayor Nutter plans to spend $8.3 million to create 200 units of new housing for those "hardest to reach," but then plans to use 500 public housing units for other homeless, putting them ahead of desperately poor people who are trying to avoid homelessness by getting into affordable housing.
Ventura County, CA hasn't seen a decrease in homelessness. Utah's numbers are actually going up. Numbers are down on Long Island but Connie Lassandro, Nassau County's director of housing and homeless services, says
"The numbers are down ... because there were restrictions put on us....Obviously [HUD] is thrilled because they see the number is down. It's all about funding. If the numbers are down, they can say the need's not there."

Asked about the change yesterday, Johnston said interviews were not required. He said the decreases came as thousands of HUD-funded housing for the homeless became available. "We really believe these numbers," he said.

A HUD slide show on conducting the 2007 counts said interviews were "preferable" and instructed counters to "always ask about homelessness." Guidelines HUD sent out said: "Without interview information, communities will not be able to accomplish several things that HUD is requiring."

Long Island homeless advocates said HUD declined to tell them, in writing, that interviews were not required.
I've worked with homeless people for many years and been homeless myself. I'm more likely to believe that fewer people are homeless when we have more jobs and more affordable housing. Still waiting.


1 comment:

michael said...

Isn't it frustrating how the Feds are so adept at finding ways to skew the numbers of homeless in order to make it seem like they're actually doing something?

According to the Nat'l League of Cities - who polled cities across the nation - there has been a 22 percent increase of: homelessness, requests for emergency shelter, and requests for emergency services.

Here's a link to their findings: