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New Stats Boast A Dip In Homelessness — But They're Not The Full Story

Johnny Boykin, 51, of Washington, D.C., has been without his own home for about 10 years. He rotates between the homes of relatives and friends.
Pam Fessler
Johnny Boykin, 51, of Washington, D.C., has been without his own home for about 10 years. He rotates between the homes of relatives and friends.

More than 560,000 people lived on the streets or in homeless shelters in the U.S. earlier this year. That number marks a 2 percent drop from the year before, according to new figures released Thursday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Still, some question how accurately those numbers depict the problem. There are many ways one can count who is and isn't homeless.

Take Johnny Boykin of Washington, D.C., for example. He hasn't had his own home for about 10 years now. But he doesn't live in a shelter or out on the street. Instead, he couch surfs at his mother's apartment, or at friends' places.

"Saying they won't see me outside, you know. It's an overnight thing, you know," Boykin says. But he can't stay there forever. "They get tired of you now. You can't stay even for two days. I mean, you've got to move on."

Millions of Americans face a similar situation, doubling up with family and friends because they can't afford anything else. HUD says they aren't homeless — but the Department of Education, which counts homeless students, says they are.

"Those are the definitions that they use because that again more matches the reality for families," says Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. She says families with kids will do whatever they can to avoid living on the street or in a shelter, even if it means the instability of moving from place to place.

"Homelessness is much more prevalent and much more serious of an issue in communities across the country than you would gather if you just looked at the HUD numbers."

Those numbers show that on a given night last January, there were 128,000 homeless children in the U.S. — a decline from the year before. But the Department of Education says the numbers are going up. It counted more than 1.3 million homeless students last year.

Ann Oliva, deputy assistant secretary at HUD, admits that counting homeless youth accurately is difficult and says HUD's numbers might be low. But she thinks including couch surfers is a bad idea if you want to help the most vulnerable kids.

"Because it expands the definition so widely for families and youth, that it would be very difficult for us to target our resources to young people who are living out on the streets and in shelters," Oliva says.

If the new numbers show anything, it's that a lot of people need help. HUD counted 48,000 homeless veterans in January, fewer than the year before. But, Oliva says, "This isn't exactly the number that we wanted to see."

That's because the administration wants to end homelessness among veterans this year — a goal that looks increasingly unreachable. Oliva says one problem is that more than 6,000 homeless vets have been given housing vouchers, but can't find apartments that will take them. She says this lack of affordable housing is also one reason that cities like New York and Los Angeles are seeing an increase in homelessness, despite the overall decline.

Beth Sandor, of the nonprofit Community Solutions, says the annual homeless count from HUD is really just a snapshot in time. The numbers are collected mostly by volunteers, on a single night in January, and by now they are already 10 months old.

"And if you're trying to solve an emergent problem, which is in front of you every day, the data that you need needs to be as real-time as the problem is," Sandor says.

So, her group is helping dozens of cities go out and get the names and profiles of all of their homeless residents. They want to know not only who's out on the streets, but what kinds of help they need. Then, they can keep track of their progress — including "how many people are you capable of placing into permanent housing every month," Sandor says. Otherwise, she says, it's all but impossible to know at any given time whether homelessness is going up or down.

For couch surfer Johnny Boykin the most urgent issue is finding a permanent place to live, in a city where affordable housing is scarce.

"I don't really know how it's going to work out," he says. "I just hope it work out."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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