Homelessness is down: Study shows positive trend, other signs more troubling

The Hippo

Though a new report from the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness finds that the number of homeless people in the state has decreased substantially, the survey used to reach that conclusion is limited, and other data sources suggest the numbers of homeless children and families are increasing.

Using data from an annual point-in-time homeless count from the last week in January, researchers note an overall decrease of homelessness from 1,632 in 2015 to 1,317 in 2016. That’s a big change from the year before, which counted a decrease of only three people.

By far, the largest decrease occurred in Merrimack County, where homelessness dropped by 56 percent (158 fewer people).

Nearly all of the subcategories of homelessness saw declines as well. Those include chronic homelessness, family homelessness, veteran homelessness and unsheltered homelessness.

The Coalition’s director, Cathy Kuhn, said the point-in-time study is done in January when more homeless people are in shelters, theoretically making it easier to count them. It’s part of a federal program under the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department.

“It’s really just capturing homelessness in one day so it’s really not capturing the scope of the problem that we see over the course of the whole year,” Kuhn said.

She said her organization is calling for more research into homelessness and hopes to partner with area colleges and universities to get a clearer picture of the problem.

One of the issues with the point-in-time survey is that it doesn’t capture what Kuhn calls the “hidden homeless” who couch-surf from home to home, avoiding shelters and not getting access to resources. Even if service providers are aware of these individuals, HUD’s definition of homelessness doesn’t include them.

But Kuhn thinks a large part of the decrease shown in this survey is real and owed in large part to a federally funded push to end veteran homelessness. For Kuhn, that’s proof positive that ending homelessness is attainable with enough resources deployed to tackle the problem.

“I think what service providers say is now we need to turn our attention to families,” Kuhn said.

And there are signs families are among those hidden homeless and may be increasing.

A survey by the state Department of Education found that the number of homeless students (using a broader definition than HUD uses) increased marginally from 3,322 to 3,350 since the last school year.

The largest contributing factor to homelessness in New Hampshire, Kuhn said, is a disconnect between housing availability and income.

“It’s about the severe, severe lack of affordable housing in Manchester but [also] in the entire state,” Kuhn said. “That’s hard for every renter but it’s even [harder] for those who are low-income.”

And that disconnect is showing signs of worsening as rents are outpacing income growth. The report noted the state’s average rents went up 8.84 percent from 2014 to 2016. Over the same period median household renter incomes grew by 3.71 percent. Meanwhile, overall vacancy rates have fallen to an “alarmingly low” 1.5 percent, according to the report.

Housing experts say anything below 2 percent isn’t real vacancy; it’s just tenant turnover.