On December 15, 2023, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its 2023 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR). The report shows a 12% increase in the overall number of people in homeless shelters, or people who were in a visibly unsheltered situation, on a single night in January, as compared with the previous year’s HUD data.

Among all populations, the greatest increases were:

  •  Families with children – a 16% increase over the previous year
  •  Unaccompanied youth – a 15% increase over the previous year

These increases are all the more concerning because HUD data represent a very small fraction of the number of children, youth, and families who experience homelessness. The takeaway from the HUD data is clear: without urgent action now to remove barriers to existing resources, and to prioritize children, youth, and families for new resources, homelessness will continue to skyrocket for all populations.

When reviewing the new HUD report and media coverage, it’s important to keep three key facts below in mind:

1. HUD data exclude most children, youth, and families who experience homelessness, including many of the most vulnerable.

HUD’s data is based on a “Point-in-Time (PIT) count.” That count is restricted to people in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets. But most families and youth who are homeless do not stay in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets. In fact, only 15% of children and youth experiencing homelessness enrolled by public schools are in these situations when they are first identified by schools. Shelters and transitional housing are non-existent in too many communities, and are often full where they do exist; shelters also may be unable to serve families as a unit, or youth under age 18 who are homeless on their own. And families and youth are less likely to stay on the streets because they are afraid that their children will be removed from their custody. Similarly, unaccompanied youth avoid living on the streets out of fears of interactions with authorities and exploitation from older adults. 

As a result of these circumstances, most children and youth experiencing homelessness stay in motels or temporarily with other people due to lack of alternatives. Many move fluidly between these situations, which are often dangerous and highly insecure. This invisible and unstable homelessness is not included in HUD’s PIT count, but is included in definitions and data used by early childhood and education agencies. Staying with others or in motels is not a less damaging form of homelessness – it is associated with educational and health harms that are comparable to the harms experienced by children and youth who are counted as experiencing HUD-defined homelessness, as reflected in the PIT count.

2. Despite HUD claims, family homelessness has been on the rise for years.

HUD asserts that this year’s 16% increase in the number of families with children staying in shelters, or who were counted as homeless because they were visible outside, reverses a decline in family homelessness. However, school data paint a very different picture of the trends in family homelessness. 

  • Between 2007 and 2022, HUD data show a 31% decrease in families and children who meet its definition of homelessness (i.e., staying in shelters or visible outside).
  • Over that same time period – between the 2006-2007 school year and the 2021-2022 school year – public school data show a 77% increase in children and families who meet the federal education definition of homelessness (which includes those in shelters and motels, unsheltered, and staying temporarily with others).

In order to ensure that children and youth receive educational protections and services, public schools are required to proactively identify all children and youth experiencing homelessness — those who meet HUD’s definition of homelessness, and those who do not. While there may not be a shelter bed or housing unit for every family and youth who needs one, there is a guaranteed seat in the classroom. Even with well-documented challenges to the identification of homeless children and youth by schools, public schools are still much more accurate barometers of family and youth homelessness than HUD data.

3. HUD claims that the dramatic increase in homelessness in 2023 is due in part to the winding down of pandemic-era relief measures. Many families with children experiencing homelessness were either not eligible for, or not prioritized for, housing-related pandemic aid. Families with children and unaccompanied youth continue to be excluded from or face barriers to available HUD housing and homelessness assistance.

While pandemic-era measures undoubtedly kept many families in their homes, the fact remains many families and youth experiencing homelessness were unable to benefit from them, and continue to be overlooked in HUD housing and homeless programs. Eviction moratoria did little to stabilize the many families and youth who were staying temporarily with others and therefore who could be – and were –- kicked out at a moment’s notice. Families and youth staying temporarily with others also weren’t prioritized for Emergency Housing Vouchers, even though they were unable to social distance in the crowded, precarious dwellings of other people. 

There is a long-term trend that HUD does not highlight: fewer families also appear to be served by existing HUD resources. As outlined in this recent letter to HUD by U.S. Representatives Bonamici (D-OR) and McGravey (D-KY), the number of families receiving rental assistance fell by 13% from 2004 to 2016, and the percent of people with children in subsidized housing nationally has fallen to 33 percent, the lowest percentage in a decade and an overall decline of eight percent from 2010. 

The bottom line is that if urgent action is not taken now to amend existing programs and policies to remove barriers, and to prioritize children, youth, and families for new resources, homelessness will continue to skyrocket for all populations. There is a strong correlation between childhood homelessness and adult homelessness. Thus, ignoring children and youth now is a recipe for continued adult homelessness far into the future.

1. Extend the deadline for the American Rescue Plan — Homeless Children and Youth, or ARP-HCY funds and continue this investment in the annual Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.

ARP-HCY funds are $800 million in one-time funding enacted through a bipartisan amendment in response to the exclusion of homeless children and youth from other pandemic packages. The funds are flexible and allow schools to identify and support children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness directly, including through wrap-around services and short-term emergency housing. However, ARP-HCY funds must be obligated by September 30, 2024, which means they cannot be used for the remainder of the 2024-2025 school year, despite the fact that the need is greater now than it was during the pandemic, and despite the fact that schools are best positioned to help directly. Congress should extend the ARP-HCY deadline to allow state and local agencies to use these funds for the entirety of the 2024-2025 school year. In addition, Congress should continue to invest this same amount and to permit the flexibility allowed under ARP-HCY in the annual Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.

2. Pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act, H.R. 5221.

The Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA) is bipartisan legislation that amends HUD’s definition of homelessness to align it with federal definitions of homelessness for children and youth. It will remove barriers, streamline assistance, leverage resources, and bring greater visibility to the reality of family and youth homelessness.

3. Pass the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act, (S.3125/H.R. 6041)

This legislation will comprehensively update and reauthorize the vital Runaway and Homeless Youth Act to prevent trafficking, identify survivors, and provide housing and service options to youth in need.

4. Pass the Family Stability and Opportunity Vouchers Act

This bipartisan bill would create an additional 250,000 housing vouchers over five years for low-income, high-need families with young children. Pregnant women and families with a child under age 6 would qualify for these new vouchers if they have a history of homelessness or housing instability, live in an area of concentrated poverty, or are at risk of being pushed out of an opportunity area. This legislation is especially important in light of extraordinarily high rates of homelessness among infants and toddlers, and other young children. In order to reach families most directly and without bureaucratic referral systems, housing agencies should work directly with early childhood programs like Head Start and public schools, rather than through HUD’s coordinated entry system.

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