Arkansas recorded a 13% decrease in homelessness in 2020 compared with the previous year, though it ranks among a few states where more than half the homeless population lives outdoors, according to a recent federal report.
The first installment of the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress, compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, examines homelessness trends using information gathered in January 2020. It doesn't address the coronavirus pandemic's impact on homelessness, a HUD news release last week noted.
The report found 12,751 more people nationally experiencing homelessness in 2020 over 2019. Arkansas had 2,366 people experiencing homelessness, 351 -- or 13% -- fewer than 2019.
"The findings of the 2020 AHAR Part 1 Report are very troubling, even before you consider what COVID-19 has done to make the homelessness crisis worse," HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge said in the news release.
The national number represents a 2.2% increase to 580,466 total. Arkansas was among states with the largest decreases. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia saw drops in their homeless populations.
Arkansas homeless-service providers said they've seen more people experiencing homelessness over the past year because of job losses and evictions during the pandemic, and expressed concern that numbers gathered for the 2021 count might not accurately reflect that increase.
"We're always concerned that the homeless citizens are underreported, but I think because the covid conditions continue, we'll continue to have some challenges with getting accurate numbers," said Rebecca Beadle, chairwoman of the Arkansas Homeless Coalition and the Central Arkansas Library System's community resource specialist.
Pam Hutcheson, the Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care executive director, said she also thought the decrease in 2020 may have been partially because of undercounting. Because counts occur over a 24-hour period, many factors can influence the results, including weather.
Groups that count the homeless, called continuums of care, in Northwest and Central Arkansas did not conduct counts of the unsheltered population this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The continuums also help coordinate services in each region.
Beadle added that this year, the groups she works with have seen more people who need help because of economic conditions caused by the pandemic. She said the large percentage of the population that was unsheltered seemed in line with what she's seen.
Some 54% of the state's homeless population was unsheltered, the federal report found. Arkansas was one of just six states with more than half its homeless population living in the streets, in camps, or in other places not fit for human habitation, rather than in hotels, emergency shelters, or other types of shelter.
Nationally, about 4 in 10 people experiencing homelessness were unsheltered.
Beadle said that when she first began working with the homeless coalition, she heard a statement that took her aback: "'If all of the people on the streets were mentally healthy and clean and sober, there still wouldn't be enough affordable housing for them here."
"We just don't have enough places," Beadle said
A recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a research and advocacy group, showed that no state had enough housing for people with the lowest incomes. Arkansas had a deficit of about 51,500 housing units that were available for those with "extremely low incomes," the report showed.
This shortage is paired with a shortage of shelter beds in certain areas of the state, including Central Arkansas, providers said.
It's is especially true for men in Central Arkansas, because many shelters are designated for women and children, said Aaron Reddin, founder of The Van, a Little Rock nonprofit that delivers food and supplies to the unsheltered homeless.
"The beds aren't there," Reddin said.
Northwest Arkansas lacks space for families with children, Hutcheson said.
But, Reddin added, it was a "pleasant surprise" to see the drop in Arkansas' homeless population from 2019 to 2020. He suspects that recent efforts to rehouse people experiencing homelessness may help cut the numbers further.
All three federal covid relief bills have included funding for rental assistance or homelessness prevention, which some providers have used to rehouse the homeless. President Joe Biden's administration's policy, Housing First, aims to provide "permanent supportive" housing without preconditions or barriers to entry, including sobriety or service participation requirements.
Chris Joannides, director of the Hope Campus in Fort Smith, said his group had some success with rehousing over the past year, but he's seen homelessness increase. Hope Campus provides a wide range of services and shelter to the unhoused.
"I think it's going to be up," he said. "I don't see it [decreased numbers] holding true, sadly. Maybe for the state it will. I can only hope, but I don't see our area."
Arkansas may not have seen the full impact of the pandemic on the homeless community yet, Hutcheson said.
The federal eviction moratorium has kept many people from losing their homes, but she said that may change when it expires. The moratorium, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is set to end March 31. Many advocacy groups have asked Biden to extend it, although it has come under fire in court.
"I think it's going to take a little bit of time for us to see," Hutcheson said of the pandemic's impact on the number of people experiencing homelessness.
The HUD report also found that nationally, minority-group people were "significantly overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness."
Family homelessness did not decrease for the first time since 2010, according to the release.
Chronic homelessness increased, which Arkansas service providers said was troubling. That group often has a harder time finding and staying in permanent housing and is more likely to stay outdoors rather than in a shelter, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
People are considered chronically homeless if they've been without a place to stay for at least a year, or are repeatedly homeless, and have a condition such as mental illness, a substance-abuse disorder or a physical disability.