Fewer veterans lived in homeless shelters or transitional housing in 2021 than in 2020, but the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the homeless in America may not be known until more communities can conduct surveys of those living on the streets, according to a new report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
The number of veterans living in shelters dropped by 10% in 2021, the report, released Monday, found.
Unlike previous years, though, the report fails to provide a complete overview of the nation's homeless population because many communities decided against holding their annual one-night counts of the homeless who live outdoors, usually scheduled for January.
According to the study, called the 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 19,750 veterans were living in shelters or emergency facilities during a single night in January 2021, down from more than 22,048 in 2020. The figure also reflects a marked decline in sheltered homeless veterans during the past decade, a 55% decrease from a high of 43,457 in 2010.
"The 10% decline ... suggests that the measures put in place to protect our most vulnerable Veterans and keep them in stable housing during the pandemic and beyond have had encouraging impacts," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a prepared statement released Monday.
Officials warned that the coronavirus pandemic may have affected not only the one-night count of those on the streets, it also may have influenced the tabulation of homeless individuals living in shelters or emergency housing, given the constraints the pandemic placed on those facilities.
The report noted that many shelters reduced the number of available beds during the pandemic, a bid to increase physical distancing to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
That may have skewed results because some shelters reported their reduced capacities but others did not, the report noted.
"Estimates of the number of veterans experiencing sheltered homelessness at a point in time in 2021 should be viewed with caution," officials wrote.
According to the report, roughly 8% of all homeless adults living in shelters in January 2021 were veterans. Nearly all veterans who were homeless were living on their own, but 3%, or 603 veterans, were in a shelter with families that included children.
Female veterans experiencing sheltered homelessness were more likely to be with a child under 18 years of age, 17%, than their male counterparts, 2%.
And 15% of all veterans in sheltered facilities were known to have experienced chronic homelessness.
In contrast, 326,126 individuals in the general U.S. population lived in shelters during the one-night count in 2021, an 8% decline from 2020. Of those, 43% were families and 23% were considered to have chronic patterns of homelessness.
Previous reports from HUD have shown that the overall number of veterans living without long-term housing -- either sheltered or unsheltered -- has declined steadily since 2010, from a high of more than 74,000 that year.
Homeless advocates have argued for years that the one-night count underestimates the number of homeless persons in America.
In July 2020, the Government Accountability Office noted that the count is conducted by individual organizations that don't often use the same methodology, and HUD's directions to these groups on sampling techniques "were incomplete."
Accuracy is important because the data is used to determine how HUD allocates funds and how local governments spend federal money for housing.
Despite the caveats of the 2021 report, lawmakers said they were glad to see the declining trends of the past several years continue.
"I am glad that the most recent estimate showed fewer veterans living in homeless shelters last year. But I remain worried about the many veterans sleeping on the streets or elsewhere who were not included in this count," said Illinois Rep. Mike Bost, ranking Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in a prepared statement Monday.
"I'm encouraged to see that our efforts to deliver resources and stronger support during the COVID-19 pandemic are putting more veterans on the path to housing stability," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a press release Monday. "While this is a step in the right direction, veterans can't afford to wait another year for this data to inform what our next steps need to be."
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.