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What Could Go Right? Homelessness has not spiked

A dive into the numbers

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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This article was written using data from 2022. It compared numbers from 2007, when reporting began (647,258 total homeless) with 2022 (582,462).

With the release of the 2023 data, we can see that homelessness has spiked. We have regressed, surpassing 2007’s count with 653,100 total homeless in 2023.

Axios has the breakdown here.

Homelessness has not spiked

Editor’s note: It is now preferred by those working in the field of homelessness to refer to people as “unhoused” or “experiencing homelessness.” I don’t always follow this prescription in the article below, as it can make for convoluted writing, and many aren’t familiar with the updated terms. If you are, their non-use here is not meant as an expression of disrespect or dehumanization.

I lived in New York from the late aughts until the pandemic, so I’m no stranger to city living. Home for the holidays, however, I have been shocked not only by the number of homeless people here but also by their physical and mental condition. It is strikingly worse than what I remember.

Given the nature of The Progress Network, I am always skeptical of what the media calls a “crisis.” The word is thrown around entirely too much. I am skeptical, too, of anecdotal evidence. But since so much has been written about the United States’ homelessness crisis, since the rent is definitely too damn high, and since real-world experience is hard to ignore, I assumed this was an instance where “crisis” fits the bill. 

So I was surprised again, this time by the numbers, when I went looking for them. Data for 2023 aren’t out yet, and comprehensive data do not exist for 2021 due to the pandemic. But in 2022, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s annual report on homelessness, the homelessness rate remained steady at .18 percent of the American population. Homelessness has increased since 2016, but decreased since 2007 by over 64,000 people.

Chart showing the number of homeless people in US

What has increased a lot in recent years are the numbers of the chronically homeless, which HUD defines as individuals with disabilities experiencing homelessness for long periods of time. Almost 22,000 more people since 2010 are now chronically homeless. (2010 is used as a comparison point as it is the first year that the federal government set a national goal to end homelessness.)

The report didn’t offer a specific explanation why, although they did make note of the rental market, as well as government funding and the federal eviction moratorium potentially buffering housing insecurity caused by the pandemic. 

What’s curious is that the rise in the chronically homeless isn’t tied to a shrinking ability to give shelter and support. Since 2007, the US has almost quadrupled the number of beds available in what is called permanent supportive housing, long-term rentals where rental assistance is provided along with services like childcare, job and skills training, and substance abuse and mental health counseling. Almost half of the about 178,000 spots are dedicated to those experiencing chronic homelessness.

Chart showing inventory of beds in shelters and permanent housing
While the number of beds has increased, there is about a 160,000 bed shortfall compared to the total number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in the US (582,462 people).

There are other improvements. Fewer families are homeless, down 36 percent since 2010, comprising almost 30,000 families. Among homeless families, fewer are unsheltered, meaning that they are sleeping on the street or in abandoned buildings. That heartbreaking situation is down almost 66 percent since 2010.

As we spoke about on the podcast recently, the number of homeless veterans has been cut by over half since 2010, with over 40,000 of them now housed. That was a particular focus of the Obama administration.

Youth homelessness is also down in recent years, although we can’t compare data from before 2017.

How anecdotal experience interacts with the federal statistics will vary for American readers depending on where they live. I wasn’t off in my assessment that homelessness in New York City has worsened, even if rates in the state are among the nation’s lowest. In terms of absolute numbers, more than half of the US’ homeless live in California, New York, Florida, and Washington. An astonishing half of all unsheltered people—those sleeping outside—live in California.

US map showing the number of homeless people by state
Other than California, Mississippi, Hawaii, Oregon, and Arizona have the highest homelessness rates; Vermont, Maine, New York, Wisconsin, and Delaware the lowest.

I had also assumed that the US has a homeless rate that far surpasses Europe’s. Again, it’s not that simple. A 2023 report from the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) put the minimum number of homeless people in Europe at 895,000, although they say the data is patchy. If the number is right enough, back-of-the-napkin math puts Europe’s rate at roughly .12 percent.

That varies widely by country. France, Germany, and Ireland all have rates higher than the US; France’s is over .3 percent. Then there’s Finland, a country of 5.5 million people, with around 3,700 homeless people total, which they brought down from around 17,000 in the 1980s. How did Finland do it? They built and converted housing specifically for homeless people, and use the Housing First approach—housing is provided before any other services, and without preconditions. Both the Obama and Biden administrations use(d) it, too.

Overall, FEANTSA expects homelessness in Europe to worsen due to energy costs, rent increases, and the influx of Ukrainian refugees that has put pressure on existing shelter systems. A commitment to end homelessness by 2030, signed in 2021, is the first time, the report says, that the bloc has shown “genuine political commitment” to assessing and solving the issue.

As for the US, the Biden administration’s 2022 goal was to cut homelessness by a quarter by 2025. As this Bloomberg article explains, much of that execution falls to local leaders. Recently, the media has singled out San Antonio, Reno, and Houston as success stories, and I would love to hear from any readers who have heard about others. 

That homeless numbers are not spiking overall in the US does not necessarily mean that it’s unfair to label homelessness as a crisis. The modern era of homelessness is considered to have begun in the 80s—an accounting of the history is here—when numbers first hit the 500–600,000 range we are in now. (With a smaller overall population, roughly a rate of .22–.26.) 

Perhaps we are still in crisis conditions, especially if we take Finland as our paragon of success! And for any one individual experiencing homelessness, no one would argue, of course, that it isn’t a personal crisis. But I continue to find that the reality of statistics is often at odds with narratives I’ve constructed in my head.

We will take another look at this when the 2023 figures are released.

You have told us that you’re frustrated by hitting paywalls and are overwhelmed by the number of links included in our weekly roundup. Starting in the new year, we will be experimenting with new formats to make the reader experience better. Have feedback? Tell us in the comments so we can incorporate it!

Quick hits

  • Last month I wrote about a marriage equality bill under consideration by Thailand’s Cabinet. They have approved it, and it is expected to go to Parliament December 12.
  • Some highlights from COP28, the annual international convening on climate change: the EU, UK, and US, have pledged $400 million to poor countries for “loss and damages” caused by global warming. The idea was first introduced thirty years ago, and has been unpopular in rich countries for nearly as long. And, more than 110 nations have committed to tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030.

Below in the links section, Native Americans build their own solar farms, gene therapy builds an immune system, Detroit builds an EV-charging road, and more.

A chart showing a decrease in construction starts on new coal plants outside of China
Construction starts on new coal plants outside of China are on track to reach a record low this year. As of October 2023, Global Energy Monitor reports, “construction starts for the year are under 2 GW, excluding China, well below the nearly 16 GW annual average for the same set of countries in the last eight years.”

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Comments 2 Comments

  1. What I have been observing and what this report says have felt in conflict since first reading this article. Exhibit 2.1 in the 2023 PIT report tells a dramatically different, almost chilling story that explains the issue. People experiencing homelessness have risen dramatically over the pandemic and, drilling down into the 2023 report, the apparent problem with the 2022 report was from likely undercounting due to pandemic fears among the volunteers who do the counts.

    I think that this newsletter article should be updated and passed on to the readers using the new data and a new analysis. It would seem pollyannish to ignore the mistake and not correct the analysis. Please preserve your credibility. I like this newsletter but won’t if I feel I have to regularly fact check it.

    • Hi Michael – yes, you are right! The 2023 data was much different than 2022’s. We wrote about the update in the January 18 edition of the newsletter, but need to append that note here as well, which I will do now. I used the data that was available at the time but should have waited until the 2023 data was released. This was written prior to that.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.