Equity: Why You Can't Count On These Numbers

Nov 20, 2015

Estimates of the homeless populations in the state and the nation were released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, pointing to an 11 percent drop nationally and a slight decline in Illinois.

I talked with Bob Palmer, policy director at Illinois Housing Action, to find out more about those numbers.

“Illinois did show one of the most significant increases in the number of homeless individuals,’’ he says.  “In Illinois, between 2014 and 2015, there was an increase of 802 homeless individuals, which is an increase of 10.9 percent increase and Illinois was the fifth highest."

But, he says, “I think it’s hard to say a whole lot about this data from individual changes from year to year because there’s so much variance by individual community, and HUD makes it very clear this is just their analysis of the point-in-time count that all of the communities in the country are required to do."

The numbers are from a single night in January when volunteers across the country count the populations of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people.  So, Palmer says, many variables come into play such as weather and the number of volunteers who are out counting.

“The HUD definition of homelessness is much more narrow a definition than other people in other organizations use, including the federal Department of Education.  They don’t include families or individuals that are doubled up (those who are forced to share housing on a temporary basis.) The HUD definition really focuses on people and families that are literally homeless, on the streets or in a shelter."

So is there a more reliable count?

“That is a tricky number, and for our organization, Housing Action Illinois, we don’t generally talk about any single number because it is so hard to define. And then there’s different subpopulations; there’s homeless youth, homeless veterans, individuals and families,’’ Palmer says. “I know that… for the state of Illinois program that funds emergency and transitional housing programs around the state each year, all those programs generally serve around 40,000 people. That’s both single individuals and people who are parts of larger families.  Those only include shelters that get some state funding, and there’s many shelters that don’t get state funding, so if you’re to try and estimate the number of people who experience homelessness during the course of an entire calendar year, that’s much larger than the numbers that are reported in the HUD point-in-time count.”

From the HUD report: On a single night in January 2015, state and local planning agencies in Illinois reported the following estimates of homelessness:

• Overall, homelessness increased by 70 persons but declined by -8.5 percent since 2010.  In January 2015, an estimated 13,177 people were homeless on a given night.  Most (79.4 percent) were staying in residential programs for homeless people, and 20.6 percent were found in unsheltered locations. 

• Homelessness among veterans rose by 13.4 percent between 2010 and January 2015.  On a single night in January 2015, 1,226 veterans were homeless and 37.3 percent of those were on the street.

• Chronic homelessness among individuals continued to decline.  Since 2010, chronic homelessness declined 15.5 percent.  Nearly 1,800 individuals experiencing homelessness in January 2015 were reported as chronically homeless. 

• Local communities reported a 12.3 reduction in families experiencing homelessness between the 2014 and January 2015.  Since 2010, family homelessness has declined by 26.1 percent.

Palmer says the numbers show some improvement, but the bottom line is: “We need more resources.  That’s the most important message to get out there.  There’s still a lot of people out on the street. There’s still a lot of people in shelters, and what we need is more affordable housing."