The face of homelessness in the United States is changing to include more families and more people who live in the suburbs and rural communities.
The number of homeless has remained steady since 2007, but within the overall count are trends that can tell officials where federal resources would do the most good, the Housing and Urban Development Department says in its annual report to Congress being released Thursday.
About 1.6 million people used a homeless shelter or lived in transitional housing between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008 — about the same as the year before. But within that group, the number of families grew 9 percent, from about 473,000 to 517,000.
Officials said they also saw more demand for transitional housing in the suburbs and in rural areas of the country. Residents of suburban and rural communities made up about a third of those in need of housing, up from about 24 percent the year before.
HUD also attempts to count the number of homeless at a single point in time. In January 2008, about 664,000 people were in homeless shelters or in the streets on a single night. That's a drop of about 7,500 from the year before, but officials point out that the count occurred just as the nation's economic woes were beginning and did not account for soaring unemployment and other economic problems that have kicked in during the subsequent months.
The time lag associated with the national survey has led HUD to try a scaled-down, regional approach in hopes of obtaining more timely information each quarter. The first installment of that effort will also be released Thursday as part of the congressional report. The report showed that the number of people entering homeless shelters in nine regions of the country grew from 60,371 in January to 61,280 in March. Four regions experienced an increase in shelter counts. Five saw a decrease.
Participants in the quarterly reporting include New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as smaller cities like Richmond, Va., and Shreveport, La., and more rural regions, such as 118 of Kentucky's 120 counties, excluding the state's two largest cities of Lexington and Louisville.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said the annual report to Congress sheds light on how today's housing crisis and job losses are playing out in shelters and the streets. With the quarterly reporting, "we will be able to better understand the impact of the current economic crisis on homelessness across the country," Donovan said.
The quarterly report includes anecdotal summaries. For example, the case manager at a Richmond shelter reported seeing a greater number of "individuals who have held professional, skilled-craft positions."
An official in Kentucky said, "One day last month, we had to turn away three families due to full capacity." Officials in Shreveport reported a decrease in demand that they attributed to hurricane victims gradually moving back to New Orleans.