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HUD to Congress: New Homelessness Analysis by Abt Finds Use of Shelter Programs Down Due to Pandemic

Rockville, Md. –  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has released part two of its Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, which was produced by Abt Associates. The report identifies demographics and patterns among the people who use the nation’s emergency shelters, safe havens, and transitional housing programs. This edition’s data show that the number of people who accessed shelter programs declined by 14 percent between 2019 and 2020.

However, factors related to the pandemic obscure the realities of homelessness during this time. With fewer beds available to people experiencing homelessness, these reductions should be viewed with extreme caution. Further, Black, Indigenous, and people of color continued to be vastly over-represented among those experiencing homelessness in 2019 and 2020. While there was a decline in shelter use across all populations (families, individuals, veterans, and youth), people with chronic patterns of homelessness increased by 20 percent, emphasizing the vulnerability of this population during a public health crisis.

Key Findings

  • In 2020, an estimated 1.25 million people in 960,000 households used shelter programs at some point during the reporting year – six months of which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a 14-percent reduction from 2019.
  • Sixty percent of households experiencing sheltered homelessness in 2020 (or 570,000 households) were doing so for the first time. This is a reduction over 2019, reflecting the reduced inflow into shelter programs during the pandemic. Communities reported eviction moratoria, a hesitancy to use shelter, and other prevention resources reduced the number of people using shelter during the pandemic.
  • People experiencing sheltered homelessness remain disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Black people were considerably overrepresented among those experiencing homelessness. For context: 12 percent of all U.S. heads of households identify as Black but 21 percent of the heads of households living in poverty are Black. Disturbingly, when looking at people experiencing sheltered homelessness, that figure almost doubles again: people identifying as Black accounted for 40 percent of heads of sheltered households in 2020.

Changes in Data Collection

The 2020 estimates in this report are profoundly affected by COVID-19; emergency shelters reduced capacity—in some cases by 50 percent—to allow for social distancing. However, the 2019 data assessed through the Longitudinal Systems Analysis (LSA) platform were much improved since the LSA’s debut in the 2018 report. With 2019 serving as the new baseline for comparing year-to-year changes in sheltered homelessness, we will be able to see changes in homelessness as shelter capacity recovers. As in past years, the AHAR estimates are weighted for missing data to produce a representative national estimate.  For the first time ever, we are able to report separately on use of shelters in rural areas.  The new data show how programs such as short-term rent subsidies are used by rural communities as an alternative to shelters when they have limited shelter capacity.

“Homelessness persists due to a systemic failure to address deep poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and structural racism,” said AHAR lead author Meghan Henry, a senior associate at Abt. “It’s possible that COVID-related economic interventions temporarily mitigated the impact of those first two challenges, but the AHAR data illustrates that the social safety net must be cast more widely, to help all Americans who need it.”

Read the report here.

About Abt Associates
Abt Associates is a global consulting and research firm that combines data and bold thinking to improve the quality of people's lives. We partner with clients and communities to advance equity and innovation—from creating scalable digital solutions and combatting infectious disease, to mitigating climate change and evaluating programs for measurable social impact.

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