Homelessness in US down slightly, but LA still worst for chronically homeless

People in Denver line the sidewalks near the Denver Rescue Mission in October.
People in Denver line the sidewalks near the Denver Rescue Mission in October.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Homelessness in the U.S. declined over the past year. Even so, there were large increases in several cities, including Los Angeles, which topped the list for the number of people showing signs of chronic homelessness.

Overall, almost 550,000 individuals were homeless on a single night earlier this year, according to a new report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That's a 3 percent decline overall from 2015, and continues a downward trend in homelessness over the past few years. The numbers are based on a count conducted in January by communities across the country.

There were also declines in almost every homeless category, including veterans, families and the chronically homeless.

But some areas bucked the trend. In Los Angeles County, there were an additional 2,680 homeless people, an increase of 6.5 percent. Washington, D.C., saw a 14.4 percent increase in homelessness, over 1,000 more people. And the Dallas and Seattle areas also had big increases, 21.3 and 6.0 percent, respectively.

Taken together, the city and county of Los Angeles had the second highest overall total, at close to 44,000 people. New York City had the largest homeless population, with about 73,500.

But the results were flipped when looking at the chronically homeless. The city of Los Angeles had just shy of 13,000 such individuals. New York City's total was about 3,200.

The report defines a chronically homeless person as someone with a disability who has been homeless for at least one year, either continuously or spread across at least four periods in three years.

One of the common variables among the cities where homelessness increased — they have all seen housing costs soar in recent years.

"There's no doubt that the lack of affordable housing is the big driver in our homeless numbers," says Norm Suchar, who directs HUD's homeless assistance programs.

Still, he notes that there was a 2.4 percent decline in New York City's homeless population this year, despite a housing crunch. He says that was due in part to a massive push there to address veterans' homelessness.

Suchar notes another "less bright spot" in the numbers — a 2 percent increase in unsheltered individuals, those actually living outside. That population has been declining in recent years, but Suchar says several cities on the West Coast, especially L.A., saw big increases.

About three-quarters of the homeless in the city of Los Angeles were unsheltered in 2016, according to the report.

Compare that to New York City, where just 4 percent of people experiencing homelessness lived outside. Nationwide, about a third of the homeless were unsheltered.

Overall, HUD and communities around the country are happy with the progress that's been made in recent years. They credit a broad, bipartisan effort to reduce homelessness. Homeless veterans especially have benefited in recent years from an investment of billions of dollars in federal funds to move them into permanent supportive housing, and veterans' homelessness dropped 17 percent this past year.

Still, there were more than 39,000 homeless vets in January, despite an Obama administration vow to eliminate veterans' homelessness by the end of last year.

There were also more than 194,000 people in homeless families in January, a 6 percent drop from the year before. The number of homeless unaccompanied youth also appeared to drop — to 35,686 — although HUD says it's not clear how accurate those numbers are for this difficult-to-count group.

"We have a pretty good understanding of what the solutions to homelessness are," says Suchar, adding that money invested in moving people into permanent housing has had a huge impact. Still, some advocates complain that the department has drained funding from transitional housing, which some feel can help homeless individuals get back on their feet by providing temporary support.

The numbers also don't reflect the growing number of families in the U.S. who pay more than half of their incomes on rent or who are doubled up with family and friends. Both of these are seen as signs that someone could become homeless soon.