Homelessness reaches record highs in US: report

The number of houseless people in the U.S. has risen a stunning 12% in the last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced in a 117-page Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) at year’s end. The news, which did not make headlines, cited rising rents and the end of pandemic aid as key factors that impacted hundreds of thousands of Americans. The confluence of poverty and becoming unhoused was also highlighted in the new report.

According to the new AHAR report, about 653,000 people were designated as houseless, the most since the U.S. began using the annual AHAR Point-In-Time survey in 2007. The total in the January count represents an increase of about 70,650 from the previous year.

The report’s point-in-time estimate has provided a picture of the country’s homeless population annually since 2007. The 2023 Point-In-Time count reports the highest number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in the U.S. The report shows major cities are where the majority of unhoused people are, with nearly 1 in 4 of the country’s total homeless population found in either New York City or Los Angeles alone, based on the 2023 count.

Philadelphia has a high rate of homelessness and an expansive agency, Project HOME, addressing homelessness — including for LGBTQ people. Project HOME has the first-in-the-state LGBTQ+ housing for young adults in North Philly. And in 2017, Project HOME honored the legacy of lesbian civil rights activist Gloria Casarez by naming the agency’s then-newest property for her.

On Jan. 5, Project HOME Executive Director Sister Mary Scullion wrote an op-ed for the Inquirer addressing the AHAR report and what it means for Philadelphia. Scullion called on Mayor Cherelle Parker to prioritize homelessness and noted that the AHAR found Philadelphia had “the largest overall annual increase in homelessness that this city has seen in at least 15 years, according to our calculations.”

The breakdown of homelessness is split: Six in ten (60%) of the unhoused were staying in sheltered locations — emergency shelters, safe havens, or transitional housing programs — and four in ten (40%) were in unsheltered locations such as on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation.

Not part of the count, however, are what some advocates call the “hidden homeless” — people “couch surfing” intermittently while having no permanent housing and with those temporary situations highly unstable. Homeless youth, for example, are often forced into survival sex work for temporary shelter and can become victims of sex trafficking.

Of people who experience homelessness in Philadelphia, more than 17% are minors under the age of 18, and more than 8% are youth ages 18 to 24, according to the city’s 2023 Point-In-Time Count. Another 16% are 65 and over, with seniors the fastest growing population of unhoused people in Philadelphia and the nation.

Among the total number of unhoused people, data suggests LGBTQ+ Americans are disproportionately represented, both nationally and in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. HUD states that “Years of research and countless studies have repeatedly shown that discrimination threatens not only access to housing but the stability of communities. Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) community are more likely to become homeless, and once homeless, more likely to endure discrimination and harassment that extends their homelessness.”

The National Council on Aging (NCOA) states that LGBTQ+ seniors are an at-risk population “experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.” NCOA notes, “Some populations experience unique barriers to benefits enrollment due to geographic and social isolation, language barriers, and historic mistrust of and maltreatment by government authorities.”

According to the new AHAR report, “Thousands of Americans joined the ranks of the unhoused population in the last year due to the end of pandemic programs such as the eviction moratorium as well as jumps in rental costs.”

The report also found, “The end of COVID-era aid such as the expanded Child Tax Credit, stimulus checks and other supports has also led to a spike in poverty last year,” an issue that was most dramatic for minors, among whom the poverty rate doubled.

The number of people who became newly homeless between the federal fiscal years 2021 to 2022 jumped 25%, HUD noted in the report.

These new numbers indicate that people becoming houseless for the first time were the source of much of the increase. Also, the AHAR numbers are generally viewed by those working with houseless populations as under-representing the true scope of the problem. For example, in October 2023, an average of 90,578 people slept in New York City’s homeless shelters each night. This included 23,103 single adults, 32,689 minors, and 34,786 adults in families. The total number is at its highest ever, with 63,636 people sleeping in homeless shelters.

Los Angeles, the second most populous city in the U.S., has an unhoused population that is 5% of the current number, suggesting that there are a lot more unhoused individuals — particularly if new migrants are included in the numbers which they are not.

In October 2023, the number of homeless in Philadelphia reportedly rose by 5.2% — the second year that numbers went up in the city. Homelessness is a significant problem in Philadelphia — made worse by the city’s affordable housing crisis and exponential poverty rate, which is the highest of all big cities in the U.S.

Nearly 25% of Philadelphians are living in poverty and about one in 10 Philadelphians are living in deep poverty. Nearly 35% of all Philadelphia households make less than $35,000 per year.

As PGN has reported previously, LGBTQ+ people are at higher risk for poverty than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Data show nearly 30% of trans people and bisexual women were living in poverty as were nearly 20% of lesbians and bisexual men, with gay men at 13%.  

Poverty is particularly acute for LGBTQ+ elders and LGBTQ+ people under 25. That factors into the houseless epidemic. Data already indicates that a disproportionate percentage of homeless youth are LGBTQ+. The Trevor Project states 28% of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing homelessness or housing instability at some point in their lives.

One of the most shocking statistics from the new reporting is the percentage of unhoused elders. In Philadelphia, the numbers are staggeringly high. Pathways to Housing executive director Bill Maroon told Axios that nearly 16% of the 500 people the local housing advocacy group has helped shelter were 65 and older.

“It’s a major issue that I don’t think a lot of people are paying attention to,” Maroon said.

Adults age 65 and older comprise 13% of the more than 350,000 Philadelphians living below the poverty level — the highest percentage in at least five years, according to the latest U.S. census data.The 2022 count shows that chronic homelessness in Philadelphia grew by 14% — mostly among those who are unsheltered.

“The point-in-time count is designed to put a number to those living in emergency housing and those living on the streets. We learn a lot from the count, but of course it doesn’t tell us everything,” said Marybeth Gonzales, Deputy Director, Policy, Planning and Performance Management at the Office of Homeless Services.

Gonzales said, “It’s one night, and one data source, that helps inform our work by identifying trends and needs.” The 2024 PIT check will be conducted Jan. 26.

“Homelessness is solvable and should not exist in the United States,” said HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge in a statement. “This data underscores the urgent need for support for proven solutions and strategies that help people quickly exit homelessness and that prevent homelessness in the first place.”

Secretary Fudge was in Philadelphia last week to officiate at the swearing-in of newly elected mayor Cherelle Parker. Last June, Fudge announced the launch of a new LGBTQI+ Youth Homelessness Initiative. At the time Fudge said, “In the greatest country on earth, no one should have to sleep on the streets — and we know that the crisis of homelessness has an outsized impact on our LGBTQI+ youth,” Fudge said. “This Pride Month, the Biden-Harris Administration is illustrating our commitment to advancing equity in all forms and taking steps to ensure that our LGBTQI+ youth have the resources to find safe, supportive and affordable housing in their communities.”

But what about unhoused LGBTQ+ seniors? Longtime activist and writer/illustrator Mary Groce, who was PGN’s Person of the Year in 2020, spoke with PGN about the issues facing LGBTQ+ elders. Groce, 74, lives with her spouse, Suz Atlas, 80, at the John C. Anderson apartments, an LGBTQ-friendly senior housing development in Center City.

“I wish I knew more about how to solve homelessness — which glares us in the face every time we walk up the street, and which seems to be so much worse since the pandemic,” said Groce.

Groce explained that GOP politics and the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments and rhetoric must be considered a factor in the current crisis of unhoused people. She said, “There are services and shelters available, but I’m not sure that those with the greatest need are aware of their options or capable of advocating for themselves. I know that those of us who live on a fixed income such as Social Security and who depend on subsidized housing and public benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps, are at risk of losing all of that due to the whim of politics.”

“I hope Mayor Parker will help us move quickly toward a humane resolution. It should be the top priority of all representatives of the people to make sure all of us have adequate, safe and stable lodging, healthcare, human rights and nourishment,” she said.Next week: Unhoused LGBTQ seniors and experts in the field tell PGN why the numbers are so high — and expected to rise in the coming years. If you are experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia, contact the city’s homeless resource network here.

From Philadelphia Gay News