The total number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2017 was 553,742, a 0.7% year-over-year increase. This is the first increase since the 2010 point-in-time count.

Adobe Stock/Kimberly Reinick

“This year it’s close to 554,000 people. That’s a lot of people. But if you think back 15 years ago, it was about 800,000,” said Dr. Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), during a call with media to announce the agency’s 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress on Wednesday. “Are we making progress? Absolutely.”

The increase is largely attributed to a jump in the number of unsheltered homeless people in larger cities, particularly on the West Coast. For example, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County counted over 55,000 people in sheltered and unsheltered settings in 2017, a nearly 26% year-over-year increase.

“The increase in homelessness nationwide has been driven primarily by increases in unsheltered homelessness among individuals in some communities, especially along the West Coast. Those communities are facing the most significant challenges within in their rental markets,” said Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council of Homelessness (USICH). “High costs and low vacancy rates are putting more people at risk of entering homelessness, and they’re making it harder and harder for people to find housing as they strive to exit homelessness.”

However, Doherty said a great deal of local and regional variation can be found in the data and continued progress is being seen in many parts of the country. Thirty states and the District of Columbia reported declines in homelessness, while 20 states reported increases.

“We also see important progress in ending homelessness for families with children but stalled progress for veterans and increases with people with disabilities who are experiencing chronic homelessness,” added Doherty.

According to the report, the number of families with children experiencing homelessness decreased by 5.4% since 2016 and 27% since 2010. HUD attributes the significant decline to the expansion of rapid rehousing programs across the nation.

According to Doherty, evidence exists that current strategies and the best practices being embraced by communities are working. “Housing First works,” he said. “When you get people into housing as quickly as possible with the right amount of services to make sure they can succeed, we can end homelessness for everyone regardless of their challenges.”

However, homelessness among veterans and those with disabilities increased this year.

Communities reported 40,056 veterans experiencing homelessness in January, a 1.5% year-over-year increase. This also primarily was in Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, which saw a 64% increase. According to the report, if you exclude that area, the veteran homelessness estimate would be down by 3.2%.

Since 2014, when HUD, Veterans Affairs, and USICH announced its Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, 57 communities and three states have achieved the goal of effectively ending veterans homelessness. In the past month, Atlanta, the greater Kansas City area, and Pittsburgh/Allegheny County were added among those numbers. And just today, Pennsylvania’s Delaware County announced that it had achieved that goal.

The number of unaccompanied homeless youths, 24 or younger, is estimated to be almost 41,000 in 2017, a year-over-year increase of 14.3%. This is a challenging number to count when unsheltered, but HUD made a concerted effort to improve this year’s numbers by encouraging communities to adopt several piloted techniques to be more comprehensive and reach the youths.

“We very much expected that kind of increase. We believe most of that is the result of our efforts to better count young people and to make up for the fact that we were likely undercounting them in previous years,” said Norm Suchar, director of HUD’s Office of Special Needs Assistance Program. “When you look at the percentage of youth who are unsheltered, it is 55%, which is very high and higher than other populations. That is something very troubling, and something I think we need to a do a lot of work on to improve.”

Although long-term or chronic homelessness among individuals with disabilities this year declined 18% since 2010, it increased 12.2% over 2016 levels.

“We know we can’t overlook the challenging issues within many parts of the country that this data documents. Limited supply and skyrocketing rents in many large urban areas are impacting our ability to see such successes everywhere in our country,” said Doherty. “Such housing affordability challenges can’t be solved by the agencies and programs dedicated to ending homelessness alone. We must have a broader communitywide response engaging the efforts of many different jurisdictions, systems, agencies, and sectors. Otherwise the homeless services systems will get increasingly bottlenecked by the lack of places for people to live.”

Doherty added that the USICH will continue to work with federal agencies as well as state, local, and private partners to identify longer-term solutions to these challenges and will partner even more closely with the communities that experienced significant increases in their point-in-time counts.

“Increasing homelessness, long waiting lists of people to get into affordable housing is not just the federal government’s problem, it’s all of our problems, it’s a societal problem,” said Carson. “As we can eliminate homelessness, and I do think that’s within the grasp of the American people, I think we will all benefit as a result of that.”