Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released their latest estimates for homelessness throughout the country, reporting reductions in overall population and subpopulations. However, those who work directly with Rhode Island’s homeless population say numbers have been increasing every year since 2007 and no such decline exists in the state.
The report released by HUD on Nov. 20 made use of the annual “point in time” (PIT) estimates. PIT numbers are based on the number of homeless individuals (sheltered and unsheltered) counted on a single night in January in over 3,000 cities and counties throughout the country by local planner organizations known as “Continuums of Care.” According to the PIT data, the overall homeless population on that one night for 2013 was 610,042, a 6.1 percent reduction compared to 2010’s data.
The report also made note of specific declines in a number of subpopulations. According to the report, PIT estimates from January 2013 showed a 24 percent drop in homelessness among veterans and a 16 percent drop in individuals facing long-term or chronic homelessness compared to the number recorded in 2010. The decline among families experiencing homelessness was 8.1 percent, the largest decline in that population since 2005. Within their report, HUD encouraged Congress to continue to support programs that are proving to be successful in housing and serving the homeless.
Although HUD is touting this successful decline in homelessness, those who work directly with Rhode Island’s homeless say the opposite is true and the PIT estimates are not the best measures to use.
“No, it’s not what we’re seeing,” said Jim Ryczek, director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless when asked about declines in the homeless population.
Although the Coalitions statistics are not available for 2013 yet (they use annual statistics to measure homelessness through the Homeless Management Information System), Ryczek said when looking at the first quarter of 2013 compared to the first quarter of 2012, there was a 30 percent increase in the homeless population.
“That has seemed to level out a bit,” said Ryczek in a phone interview.
Ryczek explained that there are many variables, such as weather on that particular night, when using the PIT statistics to determine decreases in the homeless population. “It’s one day out of one year,” said Ryczek. “It’s not the best measure of success.”
He explained that studying the data collected by the Homeless Management Information System, which records the number of individuals using shelters in the state every day of every year.
“The best measure is the annual count,” said Ryczek. “We’ve seen an increase in the annual count every year since.”
In fact, according to the Coalition’s most recent statistics on their website, the homeless population in the state increased from 3,925 in 2007 to 4,868 in 2012. Ryczek said the most dramatic increase seen in recent years was the double-digit increase of 13 percent between 2011 and 2012.
And this count does not include homeless individuals living outside on the street, in their cars or squatting in abandoned buildings, or those who are “doubling up” with family and friends.
Patti Macreading, executive director of RI Family Shelter in Warwick, hasn’t noticed a decline in the homeless population; the shelter is always full.
“As soon as we have a vacancy, we review the family shelter wait list created through United Way 211. This list has an average estimate of 50 families always on it looking for shelter,” explained Macreading.
She also doesn’t believe this problem to be unique to RI Family Shelter.
“I had an issue here yesterday,” said Macreading in an email. “Hoping to transfer a family to another shelter, I made calls to five of the other family shelters; all reported they were full.”
Ryczek doesn’t see this trend changing when the 2013 annual statistics are complete sometime in early 2014.
“I predict we’ll see a slight rise or maybe maintain the levels now; we have historic highs right now,” said Ryczek, adding that the last time there were close to 5,000 people in the shelter system was the early to mid-2000s.
Ryczek referenced a chart of the state’s annual population statistics where you can clearly see shelter populations rise, fall in 2005 when programs came online, and then rise again in 2007 when funding stopped.
“It’s a good example of when you invest in a system, it works, and when you disinvest, you get what you pay for,” he said.
Ryczek explained that when the government stimulus package went into effect, programs to help the homeless received federal funding and the Coalition benefited.
“States got a lot of funding to prevent people from falling into homelessness and if they did, there was funding to help get them out quickly,” said Ryczek.
Then the stimulus ended and sequestration occurred this past year. “Our response locally was to cut, cut, cut,” said Ryczek.
The programs designed to help individuals get out of homelessness quickly are now gone. Even though funding for the operation of the shelters remained level, the populations have been growing.
“When you cut the exit strategy and people keep coming in, that level funding isn’t enough,” said Ryczek. “We’re looking at the perfect storm of state and federal funding cuts.”
One area where Ryczek does see improvement is in the population of homeless veterans. He said Rhode Island’s population of homeless vets is usually at or below the national average, and credited a partnership with the Veterans Administration Hospital’s Homeless Medical Clinic as a valuable one.
Back in October, the Coalition released a report card, rating the state’s progress in implementing the Opening Doors RI strategic plan. The plan, known as Opening Doors on the national level, provides a road map for states to follow in an effort to end homelessness among vets and chronic homelessness by 2015, and to end homelessness in children, families and youths by 2020.
The Coalition gave the state a C+ for their progress saying there had been positive changes, especially in the process, coordination and strategies to serve homeless Rhode Islanders, but the state still needs to shift from short-term solutions such as shelters to long-term solutions such as affordable housing and the system cannot end homelessness without being fully-funded.