National Coalition for the Homeless criticizes HUD homelessness count

The National Coalition for the Homeless is contesting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest count of the country’s homeless population.

The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, released in November, found that 549,928 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2016, a 3 percent decline from 2015.

But the Washington, D.C.-based coalition said in a Dec. 19 statement that the report undercounts the number of people experiencing homelessness.

“…[T]he count in question tallies those staying in emergency and transitional shelters, as well as those who can be located outside,” the statement said. “HUD’s recent decreases in funding for such shelters means fewer members of the homeless population are easily accounted for.”

Megan Hustings, the coalition’s interim director, said in an interview that the group also takes issue with the definition of homelessness HUD used for the single-night count, which leaves out those who are temporarily living with family or friends due to a lack of other options.

“The definition has a role in limiting how complete the numbers are,” Hustings said.

She pointed to the disparity between HUD’s count of children experiencing homelessness and numbers put out by the U.S. Department of Education. HUD’s report found 120,819 children were experiencing homelessness; the Education Department says that more than 1.3 million students enrolled in public schools during the 2013-2014 school year were homeless.

According to the HUD report, there has been a 14 percent decline in homelessness since 2010, the year that the Obama Administration unveiled its “Opening Doors” strategy, which included goals such as ending chronic homelessness by 2017.

But Hustings says that overall homelessness has likely increased in recent years.

“From all the anecdotal evidence that we get from communities, there’s been a rise in the number of people who are sleeping outdoors and in encampments,” she said, adding that her group has noticed homelessness growing among families in particular.

Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman, said that the one-night count is “certainly never meant to express the totality of the problem.”

“We don’t try to misrepresent anything,” he said. “The moment we say that homelessness is up or down, we quickly follow with what this yardstick actually is, and then we quickly follow that up with what it isn’t.”

The report separately includes Department of Education statistics on homelessness, Sullivan said.

But Hustings is concerned that the numbers from the single-night count give the public the wrong impression about the state of homelessness.

“The real trouble is that media sources tend to latch on to the HUD numbers,” she said, adding that the annual report was the only official and “somewhat comprehensive” count of the national homeless population.

The report could also be used as justification for cuts to HUD programs, she said.

“If Congress sees that numbers are going down and programs are effective,” she said, “then there’s the opportunity for them to say, ‘We don’t need these programs any longer.’”

Hustings is not hopeful, either, that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump will make changes to HUD’s annual count that would result in what she considers a more complete picture of homelessness. Trump has nominated Ben Carson to lead the department; the retired neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate has criticized federal housing policy.

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