Report: N.H.’s homeless population declined in 2012, but challenges remain

DOVER — After spiking last year, the estimated population of New Hampshire residents who are homeless has fallen in 2012, according to a new report.

The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness (NHCEH) examined homelessness in the state between 2009 and 2012. The group found there was a decrease of approximately 4 percent in the estimated number of homeless people in New Hampshire between last year and this year.

The number fell from an estimated 1,792 homeless people living in the state in 2011 to 1,725 in 2012, according to the NHCEH report.

Released Thursday, the report also indicates the homeless population has dropped sharply in Strafford County since last year.

While the figure nearly doubled between 2010 and 2011 — from 55 homeless people in Strafford County county to 100 — it has since declined. A count conducted in January of this year found there were 63 homeless people in the county.

However, NHCEH is stressing that economic factors that contribute to homelessness have not improved. Conditions worsened among three of the four economic factors the group studied — housing costs, average income of working poor, and foreclosures.

NHCEH predicts New Hampshire’s homeless population will hover around the same level in years to come.

“Although New Hampshire is commonly portrayed in the national media to be untouched by the recession and its consequences, much of the data highlighted in this report suggest that New Hampshire citizens also struggle to maintain economic stability during these challenging times,” the report concludes. “Given the economic difficulties faced by citizens in many areas across the state, it becomes increasingly important that the state maintain its commitment to ensuring that those most vulnerable have the resources they need, both to prevent homelessness as well as to overcome its well-known detrimental effects.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates that service providers across the country take a census of the homeless population in their area during a 24-hour period each year. Commonly referred to as the “Point-In-Time Count,” the tally is conducted during the last week in January.

The data yielded by these counts isn’t comprehensive — it only captures the extent of homelessness at one moment in time — but they do help gauge trends in the homeless population.

Despite the fact that homelessness has declined in New Hampshire in 2012, the level still remains higher than it was in 2010. The homeless population in New Hampshire has increased in seven out of ten counties since then.

Grafton, Hillsborough, and Rockingham counties were the three counties that bucked the trend, experiencing decreases since 2010.

A majority of homeless people counted in New Hampshire during the 2012 survey were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing shelters. However, more than one in five were unsheltered, or they were living in cars, abandoned buildings, tents or other places not intended for human habitation, the report states.

Around the Seacoast, the need for shelter has been “pretty constant” during the past several years, according to Chris Sterndale, executive director of Crossroads House, a homeless shelter in Portsmouth.

“Compared to where we were last year, we’re seeing about the same number of people,” he said. “Over the last couple of years, it’s been a little harder to get folks out. It’s taken a little longer.”

On Thursday evening, Crossroads House was nearly at capacity, sheltering 86 people. Guests receive a meal and support from workers with “basic human needs,” Sterndale said.

Crossroads House continues to receive phone calls most every day from families looking for shelter, many of whom are turned down because of limited capacity at the facility.

A lack of affordable housing in the area makes it difficult for some families to transition out of the shelter, Sterndale said.

The average “real income” of working poor people — defined as the median income of households in poverty who worked at least 27 weeks during a given year — decreased by about 8 percent, from about $8,787 in 2009 to about $8,071 in 2010, according to NHCEH.

At the same time, the number of households in poverty that are “severely housing cost burdened,” meaning that they spent more than 50 percent of their income on rent, increased from 65 percent to about 68 percent.

“Rents continue to creep up, but earnings have not,” Sterndale said, “so folks that, five years ago, could work 40-45 hours a week are now getting 25-30 hours a week. That just kind of compounds the difficulty of the housing costs.”

Other key findings of NHCEH’s report, “The State of Homelessness in NH 2012”:

-Based on the 2011 State of New Hampshire Official Point-In-Time Count, the rate of homelessness in New Hampshire was 13 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population. This rate is slightly lower than the national rate of 21 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population.

-The number of uninsured people rose between 2009 and 2010, increasing by about eight percent. The largest increase of uninsured people occurred in Strafford County, which saw a 27 percent increase.

-The “doubled-up” population (people temporarily living with friends, family or nonrelatives for economic reasons) increased by 37 percent from 532 in 2010 to 713 in 2012.

-Veterans comprise seven percent of New Hampshire’s homeless population.