Officials at the New England Regional Office of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) say there’s “still much work to be done” despite an 8 percent decrease in homelessness in Massachusetts from 2018 to 2019.
The numbers are based on an annual report that was submitted to Congress earlier this year.
The report found that nationally homelessness increased by 2.7 percent – or by 14,885 people – in 2019, while states such as Massachusetts, Maine, New York and North Dakota saw the largest decline.
“Certainly we’re very pleased with the progress that we’ve been making here in New England, seeing a reduction in homelessness in every state,” said HUD New England Regional Administrator David Tille. “And while we know there’s still much work to be done, we’re certainly very proud of the efforts that our partners have worked on throughout New England on addressing homelessness.”
The annual report is based on a point-in-time count, a housing inventory count and other data collected by HUD.
Massachusetts saw an eight percent decrease in homelessness, or 1,597 less people experiencing homelessness, than in the previous year.
The numbers show most counted were located in a shelter or transitional housing, while 829 were unsheltered last year.
The number of families experiencing homelessness with children was also down by 7.8 percent and the population of homeless veterans dipped by seven percent, according to the data.
Advocates for the homeless say the point-in-time count does not accurately account for all those who are experiencing homelessness.
Eric Tars, a legal director with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said it’s hard to know what these numbers mean without context.
His nonprofit released a report in 2017 called “Don’t Count on It,” which explains how HUD undercounts people experiencing homelessness.
“We do have larger critiques of the count process and how it systematically undercounts the real population of people experiencing homelessness,” Tars said. “It’s deliberately done on the coldest nights of the year in January, and so people who can double up and get off the streets often do so and they aren’t counted.”
Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said those who double up, and others, are being excluded from the count.
She said living in a double up situation with family members or friends or bouncing around from place to place is a very common way that those experiencing homelessness get by.
“What’s good about the HUD point-in-time count is that they use a consistent methodology each year, but it really is just a snapshot on one particular day and the HUD definition of who’s experiencing homelessness excludes the vast majority of people that are experiencing homelessness,” Turley said.
She cites the waitlist for families trying to seek a state-funded shelter as an example that more resources are needed to make sure everyone is housed.
She said unaccompanied youth and adults may also be undercounted in this data.
“There are a lot of efforts in Massachusetts to provide shelter, to provide homelessness prevention resources, and to provide wrap around services so its not to say that those initiatives aren’t underway but they’re just not to scale to match the housing crisis,” Turley said.
Tars from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty said a decrease in homelessness could mean that housing first policies and other initiatives are working, but he said it’s hard to know.
“I think the best [that these numbers] can usually tell us, if the methodology is kept consistent year to year in a single community, [is that] they can indicate trends,” Tars said.
Tille from the New England HUD regional office acknowledges the criticism over how data is collected annually.
“Though it’s not a perfect science it’s a pretty good indicator annually of where we’re at,” Tille said. “But until every person has shelter and housing that are seeking it our job’s not done.”
The next point-in-time count in Boston is scheduled for Jan. 29.