At a press conference this morning (Jan. 12) at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) is releasing State of Homelessness in America. It’s the first in what will be an annual series of investigations into how U.S. economic conditions are affecting homelessness. The information should be quite useful to policymakers.
The report summarizes changes nationally and state-by-state from 2008 to 2009 in rates of homelessness for various subpopulations. It also analyzes five economic risk factors that tend to push people out of their homes: unemployment, foreclosure, living doubled up with others, too-high housing costs, and lack of health insurance.
Driven by economic pressures like these, Washington state’s homeless count increased 3.7 percent between 2008-2009, slightly more than the nationwide increase of 3.1 percent, according to the report.
(Comparing statistics between states isn't necessarily meaningful, because economics, demographics, data-gathering methods, etc., differ from place to place. But comparisons are irresistible, if only to subvert simplistic explanations as the stats jostle each other, so let's begin: during this period California saw just a 3.4 percent increase in overall homelessness, and there was a big drop in Oregon: down 16.2 percent.)
Within Washington's overall rise in homelessness the state saw a dramatic 15.1 percent decline in the number of chronically homeless individuals, most of whom suffer from serious illnesses or addictions, while nationally, chronic homelessness rose 1 percent. (Oregon's chronically homeless decreased 15 percent; California's chronics increased almost 11 percent.)
On the other hand, family homelessness in our state rose a startling 9.2 percent, compared to a national increase of only 2.7 percent. (Oregon and California showed declines of, respectively, 24.6 percent and 6.1 percent.)
Economic changes in Washington between 2008 and 2009 have heightened the five risk factors (named in the second paragraph) that most often cause people to lose their homes:
- The number of poor households paying over half their income for housing rose by 5.3 percent in Washington (US: 9 percent; OR: 3 percent; CA: 6.5 percent).
- Unemployment rose 68.7 percent in WA (US: 60 percent; OR: 72.4 percent; CA: 58.9 percent).
- The average income of working poor people declined by 2 percent in WA (US: -2.8 percent; OR: -3 percent; CA: -6.5 percent).
- Foreclosures rose 35.3 percent in WA (US: 21.2 percent; OR: 89.6 percent; CA: 20.8 percent).
- Four percent more people lacked health insurance in WA (US: 1 percent more; OR: 6 percent more; CA: 1.7 percent more).
These changes are surely driving homelessness higher in Washington, already one of the dozen states in the nation with the highest percentages of population being homeless. But comparatively good news can still be good news: when NAEH computed final levels of the five major risk factors in 2009 for each state, only one factor in Washington exceeded the national average: too-high housing costs. (Four of Oregon's economic risk factors exceeded 2009 national averages, and all five of California's did.)
Based on its research NAEH advises focusing special attention, during the coming months of this recession-impacted year, on two areas of endeavor besides the perennially critical effort to increase the stock of affordable homes. Since people discharged from state institutions such as prisons, hospitals, and foster care have been shown to be particularly vulnerable to homelessness and to push homeless numbers steeply higher, states should increase support for moving these individuals into housing. And the limited federal resources allocated for ending homelessness need to be used as efficiently and strategically as possible.
A link to State of Homelessness in America is here, and trust me, the maps and charts are fascinating. When faced with pages of statistics I usually curl into a fetal position, but the elegance of this report let me behave more like a grownup.