On December 19, 2022, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its 2022 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR), boasting continuous decreases in both family and youth homelessness.
As organizations representing service providers, educators, and advocates who work directly with families and youth, we contest these numbers, and we challenge the assertion that dramatic progress has been made in reducing family and youth homelessness. Our networks confront a very different reality — as do the children, youth, and families who are rendered invisible and overlooked by HUD’s data.
In this brief, we explain why HUD’s data are flawed and misleading, and why other federal data sources provide a more accurate picture of child, youth, and family homelessness. This is important because government and local communities use federal data to set critical priorities for funding, services, and action. It is also important because until children, youth, and families are accurately reflected in all federal data, they will be underserved, which ultimately perpetuates adult homelessness.
The bottom line is that policymakers and the public should view HUD’s homelessness data with extreme skepticism, particularly with respect to children, youth, and families. Communities should look to a variety of other data sources — especially public schools, early childhood programs, and youth-serving programs — to get a fuller and more accurate picture of the prevalence of homelessness and the needs of those who experience it. Finally, Congress should remove barriers to HUD Homeless Assistance by enacting the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act and providing flexible funding directly to child- and youth-serving agencies to help meet housing and related needs of children, youth, and families.
HUD’s Data and Methodology Account for Only a Fraction of Children, Youth, and Families Experiencing Homelessness, Excluding Many of the Most Vulnerable.
The Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR) provides estimates of people who are in shelter and in unsheltered locations on a single night. These counts, known as the Point-in-Time (PIT) counts, are conducted by communities nationwide, and typically occur during the last week in January of each year. HUD’s “Point in Time” (PIT) count only measures the number of people who are in shelter or transitional housing, or who are seen during street counts.
However, most families and youth who are homeless do not stay in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets.
- Of the nearly 1.1 million children and youth experiencing homelessness identified by public schools in the 2020-2021 school year (the most recent year for which national data is available), only 4% were unsheltered, and 11% were staying in shelters. The rest were staying in motels, or staying temporarily with other people due to lack of alternatives. This invisible and unstable homelessness is not included in HUD’s limited methodology.
- Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America found that of the 3.5 million 18-24 year-olds and 700,000 13-17 year-olds who experienced homelessness, nearly three quarters who slept on the streets or in shelters also ‘couch-surfed’ (stayed with others), demonstrating the fluid nature of homeless living arrangements.
Lack of Appropriate Shelter Options, Fear of Child Welfare Authorities, and Concern About the Safety of Shelters Explain Why Most Families and Youth Who are Homeless are Not in Shelters or on the Streets.
- Shelters and transitional housing are often full, unable to serve families as a unit, do not accept unaccompanied minor youth, or simply do not exist in too many communities. When families and youth are not able to access shelter, they are less likely to be included in HUD’s counts.
- Families experiencing homelessness are also less likely than single adults to stay on the streets and other outdoor locations where they can be included in PIT counts, often because they are afraid their children will be removed from their custody. Unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness fear interactions with authorities and exploitation from older adults whether in a shelter, on the street, or staying on someones ‘couch. Fear of contracting COVID-19 in shelter settings also likely contributed to fewer youth and families in shelter.
- For these reasons, families and youth are much more likely to stay temporarily with other people, or in motels — situations that are themselves very unstable, often unsafe, and put them at risk of trafficking. They are also more common in rural and suburban areas, where the PIT count results in dramatic under-counts.
Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Who Are Excluded from HUD’s Definition of Homelessness and its Data Are As Vulnerable as Those Who Are Included.
- Two studies of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that high school students experiencing homelessness are at high risk of harm regardless of where they sleep. A 2019 study demonstrated dire risk of rape, assault, suicide, substance abuse, hunger, bullying and other risks, whether high school students experiencing homelessness are sleeping in a motel, a car, a shelter, temporarily with other people, or moving so frequently that they cannot identify a usual sleeping arrangement over a thirty-day period. Vulnerability to these harms was comparable across different homeless situations. A 2022 study found that high school students who reported homelessness had 208% higher odds of sexual victimization and 347% higher odds of physical victimization. Each homeless sleeping location, including staying with others and motels, was associated with increased odds of experiencing both sexual and physical victimization compared to sleeping at a parent or guardian’s home, underscoring the vulnerability of all high school students who experience homelessness, regardless of where they sleep.
- Four studies (California, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Washington state) find that children and youth who stay with other people temporarily, or in motels — considered homeless under the education definition — have comparable or worse educational risks and outcomes as those who stay in shelters or are unsheltered.
Decreasing Homeless Counts Do Not Equate to Reduced Homelessness
HUD’s 2022 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR) estimates that on a single night in January 2022,161,070 people experienced homelessness as part of a family, with at least one adult and one child under the age of 18.
A decrease in community-reported homelessness data does not equate to progress in “ending homelessness.” It may mean — as we have seen during the pandemic — that institutions like schools were not able to identify families and youth due to virtual learning, or that people were more afraid of seeking shelter, or that early childhood programs and college campuses closed down, or that there were fewer trained volunteers for Point in Time counts, or that some time-limited housing models (like Rapid Rehousing) are counted as “permanent” housing, while other time-limited models (Transitional Housing) are counted as “homeless.”
- In the 2020-2021 school year, public schools identified and enrolled nearly 1.1 million students experiencing homelessness, PreK-12. This represents a 14% decrease in the enrollment of students experiencing homelessness from the previous year, compared to a 3% decrease for all students, suggesting a disproportionate disengagement in education related to the pandemic caused by homelessness.
- Compared to the 2018-2019 school year (pre-pandemic), the decrease in the number of identified and enrolled students experiencing homelessness was 21%. A national survey of school district liaisons in fall 2020 attributed declines in the number of enrolled students experiencing homelessness to the inability to identify and communicate with families during virtual learning, not to reduced rates of homelessness. The decline in the numbers of identified and enrolled students experiencing homelessness is widely seen as cause for alarm among educators, not celebration, because it means loss of connection to a source of stability, services, and their best long-term chance of escaping homelessness as adults. Moreover, many educators report numbers for the 2021-2022 school year and the current school year (2022-2023) have surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
HUD also estimates that 30,090 unaccompanied youth were reported to be experiencing homelessness as individuals (without a child) on a single night in January 2022 in the United States, and another 6,348 youth were experiencing homelessness as parents, with at least one child under the age of 18. According to HUD, the number of unaccompanied youth reported by communities declined by 12 percent between 2020 and 2022.
- Public schools reported 94,363 unaccompanied homeless youth in the 2020-2021 school year.
- The most comprehensive national study on unaccompanied youth homelessness in America, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, found that 4.2 million young people experienced unaccompanied homelessness over a 12 month period.
HUD’s Flawed Data Contribute to Harmful Policies and Conflict with Other Agencies’ Missions and Mandates.
Congress and local communities use federal homelessness data to set priorities for funding, services, and action.
- HUD data that purports to show decreased rates of homelessness among families and youth contribute to decreased attention, focus, and funding for family and youth programs, as well as a sense of complacency. The inaccurate data create the mistaken impression that current federal policies and approaches are “working” and should be continued — a view that is not shared by many local service providers and educators.
- The use of HUD homelessness data to claim progress in decreasing family and youth homelessness is in direct conflict with, and undermines the work of, public schools and federal early childhood programs. These agencies are required to improve the identification of children and youth experiencing homelessness in order to ensure that they receive federally-mandated protections and services. Congress specifically amended the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to improve the identification of homeless children and youth. The Head Start Act and the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act also include requirements for proactive outreach, identification, and enrollment of homeless children. These requirements are particularly important in light of recent research demonstrating that not completing high school is the greatest single risk factor for experiencing homelessness as a young person.
Communities and Policymakers Should Look To Other Data Sources To Get A Fuller And More Accurate Picture Of Homelessness
In light of the shortcomings of the PIT count, communities should look to a variety of other data sources — especially public schools, early childhood programs, and youth-serving programs — to get a fuller and more accurate picture of the prevalence of homelessness and the needs of those who experience it.
- SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan have created searchable data profiles using U.S. Department of Education and Office of Head Start data. These profiles make available child and youth homelessness data at the national, state, county, school district, and Congressional levels.
- Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, remains the most comprehensive and reliable data sources on unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, ages 13-25.
- Researchers at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), Vanderbilt University, and the Heartland Alliance Social IMPACT Research Center developed a census-based model for estimating doubled-up homelessness across the United States. Research on this peer-reviewed methodology was published in Housing Policy Debate in January 2022. Using this method, researchers found that 3.7 million people in the U.S. population were doubled-up in 2019. First used to provide a comprehensive homeless estimate in Chicago in 2016, CCH continues to release an annual count of Chicago’s homeless population each year. CCH also leads a Homelessness Data Project that seeks to expand a model, and has developed a toolkit to train organizations and advocates on how to conduct a comprehensive homeless estimate in their region. The goal is to build a more accurate snapshot of what homelessness looks like across the country, while also building a base committed to aligning HUD’s definition of homelessness to include people staying in doubled-up situations.
Congress Should Remove Barriers to Homeless Assistance Caused by Restrictive Definitions
Congress should take action to remove barriers caused by HUD’s restrictive and complicated definition of homelessness by:
- Enacting the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act, which aligns the HUD definition of homelessness with those served by other federal agencies and programs serving children, youth, and families.
- Providing flexible funding directly to child- and youth-serving agencies to help meet housing and related needs of children, youth, and families, including through legislation like the bipartisan Emergency Family Stabilization Act.