The number of homeless families grew in 2008, signaling a warning that even more parents and their children could be without housing in the future.

The latest study finds that about 1.6 million people used an emergency shelter or transitional housing program between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008. That’s one in every 190 people in the United States, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

While the number of homeless individuals remained about the same as in 2007, the number of people in homeless families increased by 9 percent to 516,700.

Family homelessness increased most in suburban and rural areas, by nearly 56 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the 168-page report released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“This data is the canary in the coal mine,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Homelessness rates had been decreasing in the last few years, so this represents an abrupt shift in direction. Moreover, homelessness is a lagging indicator of economic tides, so there is concern that this new information could foreshadow sharp increases in homelessness in the future.”

The 2008 reporting period ended as the economic downturn was accelerating. Still, there were early signs that the economic crisis may be driving some of the trends. Notably, a greater share of people going into the homeless system last year came from staying with friends and family and from places where they had lived a year or longer. That suggests people who had been stably housed were becoming homeless, says HUD.

The study is based on point-in-time counts, which are local counts of homeless people conducted on a single night in January, and a database that collects information throughout the year.

Other findings from the study show:

  • There were 664,414 people homeless on a single night in January 2008, about 58 percent were in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs while 42 percent were unsheltered. About 124,000 were chronically homeless.
  • The highest concentrations of homeless people were in Oregon, 0.54 percent of the state’s population or 20,653 people; Nevada, 0.48 percent or 12,610 people; Hawaii, 0.47 percent or 6,061 people; and California, 0.43 percent or 157,277.
  • Persons with chronic substance-abuse issues made up 37 percent of sheltered adults.
  • Persons with severe mental illness represented about 26 percent of all sheltered homeless persons.
  • Veterans represented about 15 percent of the total sheltered adult population.
  • Recent victims of domestic violence comprised almost 13 percent of all sheltered persons.
  • People with HIV/AIDS accounted for 4 percent of sheltered adult and unaccompanied youth.
  • Unaccompanied youths represented 2 percent of the sheltered homeless population.

A quarterly look

The annual report paints a portrait of the nation’s homeless, but HUD wants an even clearer picture. Secretary Shaun Donovan announced that, for the first time, the agency will begin measuring homelessness quarterly. HUD’s first Homeless Pulse Project measured the number of homeless individuals seeking shelter in nine geographically diverse regions from January to March 2009.  The idea is to collect more timely data on homelessness and to enhance HUD’s ability to respond to the problem.

HUD also announced awarding $1.2 billion to about 400 communities to rapidly re-house homeless families or prevent them from becoming homeless. The funding is from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The new Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program provides $1.5 billion for communities to provide short- and medium-term rental assistance and services.