How COVID-19 Could Aggravate the Homelessness Crisis?

The growing homelessness crisis in the U.S. could be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. While data on the impact COVID-19 is having on homelessness are not yet available, Congress has already made efforts mitigate its effects through passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). This effort included $4 billion for homelessness prevention and assistance.

Today’s WatchBlog considers some of the factors that may increase homelessness during the pandemic. It also draws from our recent report on factors associated with changes in the size of the homeless population in the United States.

Rental prices

In 2019, the estimated size of the homeless population grew to about 568,000—a 3% increase from the prior year, and the third consecutive year of growth.

To understand recent changes in the estimated size of the homeless population, we developed an economic model that found that rising rental prices were associated with increases in homelessness. The figure below shows estimated homelessness rates and median household rent, which includes actual rent paid by renters for occupied units with shared living situations rather than total rent for the entire unit. Therefore some localities, such as New York City, may appear to have lower rent than expected.

Specifically, we found that a $100 increase in median rent was associated with a 9% increase in the estimated homelessness rate—even after accounting for a variety of other relevant factors, such as wages, unemployment rate, and poverty, as well as other demographic and economic characteristics. While the pandemic’s effect on rental prices is not yet clear, housing will likely remain unaffordable for some, particularly those in lower-income households.

Figure: Estimated Homelessness Rates and Median Household Rent in the 20 Communities with the Largest Homeless Counts in 2018

Unemployment and job loss

Job loss is also a common cause of homelessness, according to some of the community representatives we interviewed. For example, losing a job may force someone to take work for lower pay, which could cause them to fall behind on rent, and ultimately lead to eviction. Unemployment rates increased sharply during the coronavirus recession, raising concerns that an increase in the size of the homeless population could potentially follow.

Eviction

Evictions may contribute to homelessness. The CARES Act temporarily halted eviction filings for some tenants, but the moratorium did not cover all renters. Some state and local governments also established temporary moratoriums on evictions. However, many of these measures have already expired or are set to expire soon, and it is unclear how many renters will be able to stay in their homes once eviction filings resume.

Other factors

Poverty, mental health challenges, incarceration, and domestic violence also appear to be related to homelessness. In addition, our report recommended that the Department of Housing and Urban Development take steps to improve its data on homelessness.

Want to learn more about our work on homelessness and affordable housing? Check out our key issue pages on Homelessness and Affordable Rental Housing.


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