“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt
It’s been a cold winter, according to Kathy Germain, who’s in charge of housing services at Rupco and coordinator of the annual tabulation of Ulster County’s homeless numbers. Local social-service agencies involved in services for the homeless numbers say the numbers rose this past winter compared to the previous year. They don’t expect increased funding or services from the federal government.
Ulster County’s Point-In-Time (PIT) counts for 2016, 2017 and 2018 show that the number of people in “sheltered and unsheltered” homeless situations in Ulster County, per the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition, has been increasing. The January 2016 PIT recorded 320 homeless individuals. There were 403 homeless individuals in January 2017. The January 2018 PIT counted 444 homeless individuals in Ulster County.
According to HUD spokesman Brian E. Sullivan, speaking to a Pennsylvania newspaper last month, the goal of federal policy is to make homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring.” Previous administrations “were managing homelessness, not ending it,” Sullivan said in a HUD press release.
That’s not entirely true. In the last year of the Obama administration, for instance, an interagency federal task force robustly supported a “Housing First” approach, the cornerstone of the present policy.
Ending American homelessness is a worthy goal, but it’s not going to be easy to achieve. The Ulster County Continuum of Care (CoC) last week promulgated a new strategic work plan for success that involves better coordination, clearer assignment of responsibilities among agencies, and systemic improvements. Increased resources was the component that was lacking.
“Homelessness crept up in the U.S., especially among individuals with long-term disabling conditions,” stated a Dec. 6, 2017 release. A 5.4 percent drop in homelessness among families with children was noted. However, according to the HUD spokesman, housing-market troubles in New York City, Los Angeles and other “high-cost areas” were leading to increases in homelessness among veteran and “chronic homeless” populations.
Permanent housing the priority
The numbers cited come from on the annual Point-In-Time count are gathered each year on a single night. The 2018 PIT occurred Jan. 29-30.
On March 21, the Ulster County Continuum of Care held its annual meeting at The Kirkland, the repurposed 1899 Tudor-style former hotel at 2 Main St. in Kingston. More than 30 people, mostly from housing and service providers, local governments and not-for-profit agencies, attended. The goal for the year ending February 2019, they were told, is to substantially reduce — or end — chronic homelessness for individuals, youths and families.
The Housing First strategy views housing as the foundation for life improvement.
The Ulster Continuum of Care has assured its federal funder that it has heard the message. “The CoC has adopted a housing-first model for all of its CoC-funded projects and will meet HUD’s goal of rehousing families within 30 days over the next two years,” it promised HUD.
Housing First aims to make permanent housing available for people experiencing homelessness, with housing serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. The approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance-use issues.
The Ulster CoC has submitted to Washington a “renewal demand” funding application for $1.133 million for renewal of existing programs for the forthcoming year and about $100,000 more for bonus and planning money.
Definitions and methodology
Ulster County’s Continuum of Care committee, the mandated regional “planning agencies” that HUD puts in charge of the annual local volunteer “snapshot count,” uses other definitions to get its own picture of the county’s homeless situation. HUD’s definition of homelessness looks only at those individuals being sheltered in agency housing, or seen on the streets, but not anyone “doubled up” in private homes and apartments.
“Keep in mind that the PIT occurs at one of those times of year when there are more people in shelters than actually on the streets, and it’s very difficult to send people out to do an accurate count when there’s six to eight inches of snow on the ground,” Germain said. “Plus, there are large numbers of folks out there sleeping on people’s couches that don’t get counted.”
Other patterns of homelessness and joblessness are changing. Freelancers, temporary workers and people migrating from one work situation to another are more numerous. What residential address do you give when you’re living in a recreational vehicle or traveling on freight trains?
Every family or homeless person counted during the late-January PIT is observed and questioned. Forms filled out by volunteers and gathered for the CoC by Germain, note location, general age and gender, race and ethnicity of those being counted. Instructions are clear. Not to be counted are those in “institutional settings not specifically dedicated for persons who are homeless such as detox facilities, emergency rooms, jails, and acute crisis or treatment centers,” or any instance where a “doubling up” of occupancy has occurred.
According to Michael Berg, executive director of Family of Woodstock and chairman of Ulster County’s Continuum of Care committee, “We count who we can in our shelters, but there’s no way to get a definitive number that includes everyone.”
HUD’s policies have shifted away from transitional housing to getting those identified as homeless into their own apartments and houses. “We are following where the evidence leads us,” HUD press secretary Sullivan said.
Critics worry that such policy changes are a bait-and-switch, a means of giving the federal government ways of saying it’s winning the war on homelessness without addressing issues related to housing insecurity. President Trump has called for major cuts to HUD. HUD is increasing the amount it charges people to inhabit its housing, and placing a work requirement on accessing benefits.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson has suggested a more “businesslike approach” to the nation’s affordable housing crisis. The private sector would do more, he has said, if regulatory barriers at the federal, state and local levels were reduced.
Scarcity of affordable housing
Germain, who has been dealing with Ulster County’s growing affordable housing crisis for more than ten years, said the rise in local homeless numbers was a direct result of “bottlenecking” due to the growing scarcity of available housing. Rupco has closed its long waiting lists for Section 8 HUD housing, and local motels have filled up with people in need of housing.
Housing demand is outstripping housing supply. Rental markets in various parts of the county have been taken over by the Airbnb phenomenon, exacerbating the housing crisis for lower-income populations. And according to the New York State Association of Realtors, there were only 1018 Ulster County homes available for sale this February, the lowest inventory in many years.
For the recent count, Germain said, those searching for the “unsheltered” homeless made their way to known encampments behind the ShopRite and Gander Mountain in the Town of Ulster, along the rail-trail in Kingston, “and up by the cemetery, or under the bridges.” A number of people had moved on to more private spots, or private homes, to get out of this winter’s extreme cold snaps. Making the count more difficult was the fact that “people sleeping outside don’t bed down until after 10 and are up by five or six in the morning.”
To get a better handle on the youth homeless count, Germain said that the Ulster County Consortium for Care committee is working with Ulster Boces and the City of Kingston, with funding from HUD’s McKinney-Vento Act provision, initiated 25 years ago last summer and amended by the Homeless and Emergency Assistance for Rapid Transition to Housing (Hearth) Act of 2009.
Working with more expansive definitions of homelessness, these surveys follow legislation that requires all children and youths to be offered public education. “We’ve found that there are quite a number of students without regular homes, and quite a few 18-to-24-year-olds who do not have regular night-time residences,” Germain said.
She remembered hearing that the total number of young “couch surfers” in Ulster County was somewhere in the 300-plus range, and possibly higher. Many, especially those out of school, are reluctant to discuss details of their housing situations.
“The bottom line is that there’s just not enough housing here,” said the Rupco housing services manager. “A third of those who end up homeless run into a glitch of some sort where they lose a place and can’t find another.”
The national picture
On a national basis, there’s a consensus outside of HUD that the 2017 homeless number of 553,742, which the agency claimed was representative of a 13.1 percent decrease since 2010 (with only 192,875 persons unsheltered nationwide), has been systemically skewed low to support the agency’s claim that the drop was “largely attributed to the expansion of Rapid Rehousing Programs across the country and a concerted effort by local planners to reallocate scarce resources in a more strategic way,” as HUD’s December press release put it.
“As it is, there is not enough housing assistance for all the households that are eligible and they are proposing to cut it back even more,” was how Andrew Aurand, vice-president of research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, put the basic complaint. Only a quarter of very-low-income renters are currently receiving public housing assistance. Those numbers are dropping. “Without housing assistance, what these families can afford to pay in rent is often too low to cover the costs for the private market to serve them,” said Aurand.
The Urban Institute and National Health Care for the Homeless Council forecasts that the affordable housing shortage will only get worse over the next decade as the number of renters increase, the availability of subsidized housing declines, aging housing stock is converted to higher end homes and short-term rental income generators, and rents continue to rise faster than incomes.
“The math doesn’t add up,” said the Urban Institute’s Mary Cunningham in a memo published last month. “We have an affordable housing crisis because there is a market failure.”
As in other policy areas, the current national administration is relying on the private sector instead of government to provide financing. The recent federal tax bill substantially lowered the value of the federal tax credit for low-income housing, meaning that much less of it would be built. On the other hand, the new $1.3 trillion spending package passed last week included a boost of 12.4 percent in tax-credit allocations for affordable housing for the next four years. The net effect on affordable housing of these two measures is now being argued.
Is there a solution?
Germain said that Ulster County’s homeless numbers have only gotten larger while the amounts set aside for the problem haven’t. She recalled earlier plans being tied to specific dates. After those failed, the definitions for homelessness started changing, along with the ways in which those still considered homeless were counted.
“The result is that it’s very hard to compare numbers, going back,” she said. “We’re thankful, locally, when some entity like the LGBTQ Center in Kingston steps forward and holds a sock drive that provides over 200 pairs of socks to be distributed during a PIT count, as happened last month.”
At the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, based in Nashville, the new push is for permanent supportive housing, defined as “a combination of low-barrier affordable housing, health care and supportive services” designed to help people lead more stable lives. There are also new efforts to classify homelessness as a medical condition and allow doctors to prescribe housing. Legislation in Hawaii seeks to set aside two percent of that state’s Medicaid budget to house people without homes.
At the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, president and CEO Diane Yentel sent out a memo earlier this month warning that the new HUD directives would likely worsen the nation’s current homeless plight. Many are seeing her words as a call to action.
“Housing benefits are designed to help people when they fall on hard times, like when they are unemployed or underemployed, and to care for those with the greatest need for assistance, including seniors, people with disabilities, and children,” Yentel wrote. “Without housing assistance, low-income people face a greater risk of eviction and homelessness. To help struggling families earn more and get ahead, Secretary [Ben] Carson should work to expand — not slash — investments in affordable homes, job training, education, childcare, and other policies to help families thrive. While Secretary Carson may try to portray the proposals as increasing self-sufficiency, these proposals are more about punishing low-income people than helping them.”
False definitions of homelessness and flawed methodologies don’t help, either.