HUD: Growth Of Homelessness During 2020 Was 'Devastating,' Even Before The Pandemic The annual homeless count by the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows an increase in people living outside. The 2020 numbers in the report do not reflect the impact of the pandemic.

HUD: Growth Of Homelessness During 2020 Was 'Devastating,' Even Before The Pandemic

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Homelessness in the U.S. grew last year for the fourth year in a row. More than 580,000 people were living outside or in shelters on a single night in January 2020. That's according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The numbers do not reflect the impact of the pandemic, which forced many more people out of their homes and also prompted others to seek shelter. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: John Mendez and a colleague at the nonprofit Bethesda Cares are filling boxes with personal items to give people living on the streets in Montgomery County, Md.

JOHN MENDEZ: Hand warmers, clean socks, bottled water. And then we have these little care kits, like soap, shampoo, toothpaste.


FESSLER: Masks, lots of masks. Mendez says the pandemic has been especially hard on those who are homeless but has had at least one positive impact. Several clients who refused help for more than a decade finally agreed to get off the streets and into permanent housing.

MENDEZ: When you're out there and you're in the hustle and bustle every day on the streets and you see people getting on the metro by the thousands, but then all of a sudden, nobody's getting on the metro, there's no foot traffic, and there's nobody out there, it's a different world. And that's a scary thing for a lot of our people.

FESSLER: They were suddenly alone and cut off from conveniences, like store bathrooms. Mendez says that's helped the county keep its homeless numbers down, although new faces keep showing up. Becky Gligo of Housing Solutions Tulsa says they've seen similar changes in Oklahoma. Her county was able to take advantage of unused hotel space and move more than 400 people off the streets this winter. But there are other troubling trends.

BECKY GLIGO: Anecdotally, what we've seen is anywhere from 100 to 300 new people experiencing homelessness coming into our system every single month. Part of that is due to the fact that we're the 11th-highest evictor in the country, according to Eviction Lab. And so there's just a ton of inflow of people who are experiencing first-time homelessness.

FESSLER: And the new HUD report, based on numbers collected last year before the pandemic, found that homelessness has been on the rise nationwide since 2016. HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge called the numbers devastating. Family and veterans' homelessness didn't improve for the first time in years. A disproportionate share of those who are homeless were Black - 39% of the total. And for the first time since 2007, more single adults - 209,000 - were living outside rather than in shelters.

NAN ROMAN: Well, I think it's tragic.

FESSLER: Nan Roman is president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

ROMAN: We know that unsheltered people have horrible health conditions. They have substance abuse and mental health and physical disabilities.

FESSLER: And are more likely to die young. Roman says while some communities moved people inside during the pandemic, the opposite happened elsewhere. Many shelters limited bed space due to health concerns, and some residents moved outside for fear of contracting the disease. Roman and others worry what happens next when emergency pandemic measures like eviction moratoriums and unemployment insurance end. The good news is that a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package includes tens of billions of dollars in new housing aid.

ROMAN: It really is just such a huge opportunity at the moment. The question is, are we going to be able to seize it?

FESSLER: She says, if the money is spent properly, it could go a long way toward reversing these troubling numbers.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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