(There’s a lot of data in the 2013 HUD report on homelessness. This is part 2 of The Urbanist’s series to better understand this data. You can see Part 1 here.)

Breaking The Data Into Comparable Pieces

One of the fundamental problems with understanding the numbers in the report is putting them in context. The report is largely broken down by geographic areas that are under Continuum of Care organizations (CoCs), as I discussed in the first post of this series. What this means is that the areas may not coincide perfectly with other commonly used geographic regions. This becomes problematic when trying to correlate this data with other data sets, like the census. It turns out, though, that many of the CoCs are defined by counties. A few are also defined by cities.

To narrow down my work, I focused on 54 CoCs with the largest homeless population in 2013. (The pictures below are actually from the 51 largest, because I wasn’t yet done with numbers for 3.) For these CoCs, I put together a table with the area’s total population and homeless population for 2012 and 2013. You can see those numbers here. With the population numbers, it becomes much easier to compare the relative scale of homelessness in different areas.

homeless total 2012-2013

In a lot of ways, this data is pretty bad news for Seattle. First, the data shows that the Seattle/King County homeless population actually increased between 2012 and 2013. If you read Part 1, you’ll also note that Seattle’s homeless population grew between 2013 and 2014. The 2014 data for Seattle/King County isn’t in the HUD report, but given that the homeless population increased in Seattle, it’s likely that it also increased in the rest of the county.

As mentioned in Part 1, the Seattle/King County CoC had the 3rd highest number of homeless people in 2013. Previously, Seattle had the 4th largest homeless population. San Diego managed to decrease the number of people without housing by just over 1,000.

Additionally, this data shows that Seattle/King County has a larger number of homeless people than many other CoCs with higher populations. San Diego City and County, City of Houston/Harris County, Chicago, Phoenix/Mesa/Maricopa County and Santa Ana/Anaheim/Orange County all have a smaller population of homeless individuals than Seattle/King County but have larger numbers of residents. With that said, Seattle ranks 16th among 53 CoCs with the largest number of homeless people per capita:

Per-Capita-Homeless

Surprisingly, the city of Fairfax, Virginia has the worst per capita homelessness rate. In 2012 Fairfax County had the third highest median income in the country.

The HUD report included statistics regarding the effectiveness of providing shelter. While providing housing is pretty expensive (although a lot of research indicates that providing housing is cheaper than not doing so, in the long run), shelter is an important stop-gap with much different political and logistical obstacles. Among the 53 cities, Seattle ranked 21st for providing shelter. Boston topped the list with an impressive with an impressive 96.7% of homeless people provided shelter.

Sheltered Homeless Population

Among the 25 cities that were worst at providing shelter, Portland was the furthest north, followed by San Francisco. All the other cities were in pretty warm climates.

Take a look through the data to see if you can find anything interesting yourself.

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Owen does servicing and consulting for a software company to pay the bills. He has an amateur interest in urban policy, focusing on housing. His primary mode is a bicycle but isn't ashamed of riding down the hill and taking the bus back up. Feel free to tweet at him: @pickovven.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for putting this together & reporting on it. Boston’s sheltering rate is high, which is great. NYC’s is a little lower than Boston’s, but even more impressive that they shelter 95% of their homeless population when you note that their total homeless population is 64,000 people. Both juridictions are governed by have right to shelter laws.

  2. I wonder if there is a strong correlation between increasing rental costs and increasing homelessness.

    The term “homeless” tends to lump in a lot of people. There are plenty of folks who use the word “homeless” instead of what we used to call “winos” and “bums”. These are people who have substance abuse problems, or spend their day panhandling (and many do both). While there are plenty of panhandlers who are simply down on their luck (and will stop panhandling as soon as they can get a break) there are plenty of have simply given up. Not to be unsympathetic to these folks, but they aren’t who I am most concerned about. There are lots of people who live in their cars just because they lost their job and can’t pay the rent. There are plenty who have a job, but it can’t pay the rent. These are homeless, and a lot of them are kids. I can’t help but think that if rent was cheaper, a lot of these people would be living in an apartment, not a car.

    • I encourage discussions on homelessness to be extra careful about using language like “simply given up” since it can easily be interpreted as assigning blame to these people rather than examining the structural problems we face. These structural problems are where it makes sense to focus our energy and why I wrote these articles.

      In your following sentences you touch on these structural problems in a way that very much interests me. I plan on doing a follow up on the relationship between rents and homelessness.

      • OK, if you prefer the term “bums”, I’m OK with that.

        But terminology aside, I think you missed my overall point. For every person you see begging for money on the streets, or harassing someone, or making others feel uncomfortable (and thus unwilling to walk down that street/alley/part of town) there are dozens and dozens of people who are simply poor. Too poor to afford rent. Many of those poor are kids. I don’t mean “kids”, like 17 year old runaways, I mean “kids”, like 7 year olds living in a car. I’m all for helping the first group, but I think the latter group gets abandoned. Worse yet, both groups get lumped together into the term “homeless”. This latter group doesn’t need mental health services, it doesn’t need substance abuse help. It simply needs a place to stay. A safe, clean, place to stay.

        • I was also trying to gently encourage you to not use the term ‘bum’ or ‘wino’ because these terms are commonly understood to be negative. The homeless are easy to judge and the unpleasant interactions you describe can be strong motivations to pass judgement.

          I do entirely agree with you that in our current system, with limited resources, it makes sense to focus on certain populations. As you can see from the previous comments, Seattle seems to have done this with children and families. The federal government also massively increased the amount of money to help homeless veterans. This expansion of funding may very well end veteran homelessness in the next few years.

          With all that said, if we are discussing political change or strategies, it makes the most sense to push for expanding funding for homeless services so they can be provided to anyone, whether they are mentally ill, in between jobs or children. But I think the assumptions we make and judgement we pass on the homeless is a contributing factor to why it is so difficult to secure funding to help everyone.

          • Sorry, but no. Look, I definitely believe in “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality. There is no question, that if I had one big mistake in my life (let’s say, accidentally caused a big car crash that took my family) I could easily be on the street, and drink myself to death. But there is a difference between a guy who drinks every day, who would go into DTs if he skipped a week, and an 8 your old kid who had the misfortune of being born to the wrong family. Both groups are labeled “homeless” (a relatively new term) so what terms are we supposed to use to differentiate the two? Are you saying they are exactly the same?

            The problem with a lot of these politically correct types of terms is that they don’t help the discussion one bit. Do you really think people who complain about “the homeless down on Pioneer Square” feel any different about them than the folks who used to complain about the “winos down on Pioneer Square”. Of course not.

            I’ve heard more than one guy proclaim that “he isn’t a bum, but a hobo” (meaning he may not have a job, and drift from town to town, but he never begs for money). Now, I suppose, he is just “homeless”. My point being, lumping everyone who can’t afford, or doesn’t have the wherewithal to live in a house or apartment under the term “homeless” does a disservice to everyone.

          • I get the feeling we agree on a lot and this is another conversation that would be better to have in person. Your last reply doesn’t indicate to me that you understand completely what I’m trying to say. I’m not suggesting there is no difference between people who are homeless. I’ll try to explain myself more clearly.

            I’m making three arguments:

            First, indicating that a group of homeless people are ‘bums’ is passing judgement. The word is directly tied to laziness. The judgement being passed is that a bum is, at least, more deserving to be homeless than someone that’s not a bum. You may or may not mean this but that’s what I understand when people use that word and from your comments describing the ‘bums’ as people with alcohol problems and indicating the city should focus on homeless children. If we’re focusing on one group we are at least implicitly saying that group is more important which is a judgement.

            Which brings me to my second point. It does make sense to be more sympathetic of some people than others. We know that the homeless people have different circumstances. I never denied this. In fact, I mentioned earlier that the city is focusing on family homelessness and veteran homelessness. I think this makes sense in our current situation.

            With that understanding, my third point is that continuing the narrative of homeless people as bums is harmful. As mentioned in my first point, if someone ‘deserves’ to be homeless the implication is we shouldn’t help. I’m not saying you believe this (and I’m guessing you don’t) but a lot of people do (I’m not making this up. Look up the debate in Congress on expanding funding for homeless services). Furthermore, this belief is directly tied to the cuts in homeless funding. If you are like me and you think that it doesn’t matter if someone is in a drunken stupor, they still deserve shelter, then you have to ask yourself what the point is of differentiating between homeless people in a way that indicates some are more deserving than others. While you say lumping everyone does a disservice, you don’t indicate how. The only disservice I can see is addressed in my second point. Furthermore, if you insist on differentiating why not lose the connotation of laziness and say, the mentally ill or those with substance addictions?

            I’m not just trying to be politically correct. I’m attempting to end that narrative which is a direct impediment to sheltering everyone.

          • I define “bums” the same way the self described “hobo” defined bums: those who beg for money. Call them panhandlers if you want. As I said, some do this for a while (to get by until they land a job) while others will probably do this there entire lives.

            I define “winos” as a subset of those who are so stricken by substance abuse that they can’t hold a job, apply for help, etc. In the case of “winos”, as the name implies, their substance abuse is mostly, if not entirely, alcohol. By the way, the wino and bum groups overlap, but they aren’t the same (nor a subset of one another).

            I differentiate these folks from the other homeless because we seem to ignore the other homeless. Let me give you an example of why this hurts the political discussion: Apodments. Plenty of folks have criticized apodments. Some have said they are too small, shabby, etc. My quick retort is “beats living in a car”. To put it another way, I would say — and this is my main point — the point where I started the discussion — restricting Apodments leads to homelessness. But believe me, if I stand up at a meeting in, say, Capitol Hill, and state, with all earnestness, that we should have Apodments, and lots of other similar apartments because “it will help house the homeless”, I’m not going to win any converts. If anything, it gives the opponents, and the folks on the fence, yet another reason to oppose apodments. Don’t get me wrong. These are folks that are all too eager to support spending money helping those with substance abuse problems (or other medical ailments), panhandlers who can work a few hours a day, or other people in need. These may be folks who do more than talk the talk, they may walk the walk, in the sense of giving money to shelters or charities (religious or otherwise).

            But imply that you want to house bums (sorry, panhandlers) and winos (sorry, people suffering from substance abuse disorders) and you can forget getting any sympathy whatsoever. That is a problem for another neighborhood to handle (specifically Pioneer Square, and maybe Lake City). Or maybe it is a problem for the government to handle (city, state of federal). But you sure won’t get any sympathy for changing the zoning laws so that you will have more folks like that living there.

            But tell them that being “homeless” simply means not being able to afford $1,500 a month rent while you wait for the city/county/state to process your papers, and maybe, just maybe, you can win a few votes. Seriously. Tell someone about a thirty year old single mother who just took a starting job at Amazon, hoping to work her way up, trying to make ends meet but is unable to pay rent, or afford a car to make the commute, and I guarantee you that you will swing a few votes. Just don’t use the word “homeless”, because, to too many people, it means folks that they don’t want to see in the neighborhood.

            Besides, in many cases, they have a point. The person suffering from
            substance abuse problems needs help. Likewise with the panhandler (in
            most cases). Simply housing them is a good first step, but it will only
            go so far. But for a lot of poor people, they just need a cheap place to live, and banning Apodments won’t help the situation.

  3. Sometimes the names of CoCs are not inclusive of the entire jurisdiction. For example, the City of Houston/Harris County CoC also includes Fort Bend County, which would make the population total for 2012 4,880,993. The jurisdiction boundaries can be found for each CoC on their HUD Exchange page. https://www.hudexchange.info/grantees/tx-602/

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