Homelessness Soars Amid Housing Crisis in N.C.


Approximately 1 in every 1,250 individuals in North Carolina are homeless, ranking the state 18th worst in the nation and the 5th worst among southern states in total numbers. The COVID-19 pandemic initially led to a decline in homelessness nationwide, thanks to increased funding for initiatives like rental assistance, housing vouchers and additional counseling. However, funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is expiring at the end of 2024, which has slowed these programs and services and resulted in millions of people becoming homeless across the country.

In 2023, the United States experienced a surge in homelessness, reaching the highest levels since at least 2007. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that while Black Americans constitute around 13% of the total population, they represent over a fifth of those in poverty, more than a third of the homeless population and half of the homeless population with children. Families with children saw a 16% increase in homelessness since 2022.

During the 2020-2021 school year, over a million students in public schools were homeless, making up over 2% of the total public school population, with North Carolina at 1.5%. Considering an average classroom size of approximately 20 students, at least one student in every three classrooms lacks adequate housing at night. Moreover, nearly a quarter of homeless students nationwide are Black.

Housing plays a crucial role in the economic well-being and security of children, youth, and families, particularly in inner-city areas. Part of the issue stems from rising rent prices across the nation, especially in major cities where a significant portion of the homeless population resides. To afford rent for a two-bedroom rental on a national scale, a single person working full-time must earn almost $26 per hour – more than 3.5 times the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

In major cities across North Carolina, where the minimum wage has remained unchanged since 2008, rent prices surpass the national average, necessitating even higher hourly wages for housing affordability. Adding to the challenge, over 6,000 income-based properties in Wake County are set to expire within the decade.

Dr. Mary E. Haskett, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University and Co-Chair of the NC State Steering Committee on Student Food and Housing Security, likens the causes of homelessness to a game of musical chairs, with affordable housing as the chairs. 

“The supply of affordable housing and rent that working folks can afford on the low minimum wage in NC and the rising cost of living is dwindling rapidly. So, when everyone scrambles for the few affordable housing options available, many will be left without a home.” 

Haskett continues by illustrating that individuals facing homelessness frequently grapple with personal challenges like job loss, illness and trauma. Additionally, they contend with structural obstacles such as systemic oppression, racism and inadequate infrastructure – all of which impede their capacity to secure affordable housing.

The term “homeless” encompasses a diverse range of people and circumstances. Most individuals experiencing homelessness, especially those with children, seek refuge in emergency and transitional shelters, which offer temporary housing and services to assist people in getting back on their feet. Others fall under the category of “unsheltered,” residing in places not intended for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, and abandoned buildings.

According to a 2022 HUD report, there has been a consistent increase in  unsheltered homeless families since 2020. In Wake County alone, the count of families with dependent children experiencing unsheltered homelessness rose to 161. Given that families often have more than one child, the number of children experiencing unsheltered homelessness surged over 300% since 2020, totaling almost 500 children.

Haskett emphasizes that homelessness constitutes an adverse childhood experience, associated with developmental delays, illness, emotional dysregulation and academic struggles. 

The available data, however, underestimates the true rates of homelessness. To address this, Haskett argues for aligning federal definitions, a process advancing with the support of legislators and advocacy groups through the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2021.

“There are two federal definitions of homelessness. To measure homelessness as defined by HUD, data are collected through a “point-in-time” count of people and families staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing or on the streets (unsheltered) at a designated time (typically one night in January). The Department of Education definition is broader and includes children in families staying in their cars or living in doubled-up situations (these “hidden homeless” individuals are not considered homeless by HUD).”

In Wake County, student homelessness has surged over 100% since 2010, with homeless students in North Carolina nearly 20% less likely to graduate high school. Over 80% of homeless students are exposed to serious violent incidents at least once, and they are four times more likely to experience illness.

Despite some progress, recent statistics indicating declines in homelessness are disputed due to methodological errors and significant reductions in emergency shelter capacities resulting from the loss of COVID funding.

Fortunately, as Haskett points out, schools and districts are creatively addressing the issue. The McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act “provides state grants to support students experiencing homelessness in ways that match local community needs.” In North Carolina, resources are distributed through subgrants from the NC Homeless Education Program, fostering collaboration between schools and local organizations such as Head Start and Backpack Buddies. 

College students facing homelessness are often overlooked, struggling with academic focus, high emotional stress and a higher risk of dropping out while often in debt. Nevertheless, says Haskett, this group is highly motivated to achieve their academic goals in spite of their circumstances.  

“I collected data at my institution (NC State University) this fall and found that 14% of our students had been homeless for some period in the past 12 months. A new nonprofit recently started serving college students at risk for, or experiencing, homelessness in Wake County. The organization is Housing Options for Students Today (HOST). They match unhoused college students with community members who offer space in their homes for the students until HOST staff can help the student find stable, safe, independent housing.”

According to the Durham City & County Continuum of Care, despite an overall decrease in homelessness, the number of unsheltered homeless individuals has more than doubled since 2020. Additionally, local homeless organizations are now encountering more families than individuals.

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