Economic downturns and the cost of housing have placed more families and individuals at risk for homelessness. Federal efforts to count the homeless population also face challenges.
Nearly 580,000 people experienced homelessness in 2020, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The homeless population has been growing due to factors like higher rental prices. Evictions and job losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic may also cause the homeless population to rise. The CARES Act of March 2020 included $4 billion for homelessness prevention and assistance.
Estimated Homelessness Rates and Median Household Rent in the 20 Communities with the Largest Homeless Counts in 2018
Note: This map excludes so-called “balance of state” communities, which include all the jurisdictions in a state that are not covered by other major homelessness planning bodies. We estimated 2018 homelessness rates because the American Community Survey data we used in our analysis were available up to 2018 at the time of analysis. We used 2017 median rents (presented in 2018 dollars) to account for potential delayed impacts of rent on homelessness. Because this measure calculates the median using actual rent paid by renters for occupied units with shared living situations rather than total rent for the entire unit, some localities, such as New York City, may appear to have lower rent than expected.
Several federal agencies have programs serving those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. However, these agencies could improve how they implement these programs. For instance:
- HUD is the main federal agency that works to address homelessness. It provides funding for emergency shelters, permanent housing, and transitional housing. HUD also collects data on homelessness to assist with planning services for this population. However, HUD’s Point-in-Time count (count of people experiencing homelessness on a single night) may be underestimating the homeless population. During the COVID-19 pandemic, HUD supplemented in-person enumerations by allowing local communities to use data collected by public and nonprofit agencies on people using their services—an approach that likely improved accuracy of point-in-time counts. HUD should provide communities more information about how best to use such data to improve point-in-time counts moving forward.
- HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provide grants to local organizations to operate youth homelessness programs, like shelters or transitional living programs. However, many youth who are homeless may not be receiving services for which they are eligible. HUD and HHS should provide more guidance to local programs on how to help these youth access such services.
- The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness coordinates the federal response to homelessness. The Council has developed a strategic plan and benchmarks for ending veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness. However, the Council could better clarify its roles and responsibilities.