The population of unhoused people in Worcester County grew nearly 20% from 2023 to 2024, exacerbating housing advocates’ fears that it could be a while before homelessness in the region declines.

The nonprofit Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance recently released data it gathered in January as part of the U.S. Department of Urban and Development’s annual nationwide point-in-time tallying of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people.

The overall homeless population in Worcester County has now risen each of the last three years.

This year’s count in Worcester County identified 1,927 people who are unhoused, up from 1,607 in 2023. The total includes 718 children younger than 18 years old and 100 people between the ages of 18 and 24. There was a 37% increase in homelessness among people in families with children or young adults.

“We weren’t surprised to see the overall numbers go up,” said Leah Bradley, CEO of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. “They’re homeless because they can’t afford rent.”

Although Bradley said an influx of migrants into Massachusetts who are homeless contributed to the recent increase, she added the state’s affordable housing shortage is the main culprit.

A majority of people who are unhoused live in the two biggest cities in Worcester County: Worcester and Fitchburg. But because of the housing shortage, both communities have seen apartment costs soar in recent years, with Worcester’s median monthly rent at $2,000 and Fitchburg’s at $1,700. That’s led to about half of all renters around Worcester County becoming cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities.

Bradley noted the affordable housing shortage isn’t just forcing people into homelessness but also making it harder for them to leave it. And the longer people go unhoused, she argued, the more likely their social, emotional and physical health will suffer.

“Homelessness really takes a toll on folks,” she said. “The children that are experiencing homelessness are going to have lifelong effects from this.”

Despite the increase in families with children experiencing homelessness, the point-in-time survey showed a decline in homeless adults without children from 642 to 604. The number of chronically homeless people also fell to 135, the lowest since 2021.

But those decreases could be misleading, said Jack Moran, a data quality coordinator with the housing alliance. He noted that some new apartments opened in 2023 for people who are chronically homeless. But he added the numbers also may have been skewed because some shelters closed in 2023, making it harder for outreach workers to keep track of everyone who’s unhoused and include them in the count.

“That’s the nature of some of our population. They hide,” Moran said.

The release of the data comes as the state’s shelter system remains at capacity and some homeless people in Worcester complain about not having anywhere to sleep at night. They say shelters are unsafe, but if they stay outside in tents, police officers threaten to arrest them. In a ruling Friday that is likely to reverberate across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that cities can indeed punish homeless people for sleeping outside.

Housing advocates across Massachusetts say they’re trying to find solutions that will help reduce homelessness, but certain obstacles make it difficult. During a recent summit on the issue held in Worcester, housing experts from around New England said public resistance to building dense affordable housing, also known as NIMBYism — an acronym for the “not in my backyard” phenomenon — continues to be a major problem.

State officials are trying to force localities to loosen zoning rules through efforts like the MBTA Communities Act, which mandates that cities and towns near MBTA bus and train stations have a minimum amount of multi-family housing. But the town of Holden in Worcester County, for example, has refused to comply with the law, arguing dense housing will interfere with the character of the town.

John Yazwinski, president and CEO of the Quincy-based housing nonprofit Father Bill’s & Mainspring, said he’s seeing more NIMBYism now than in the last 20 years. He said the key to navigating it is to build trust and be willing to compromise.

“It’s really about going to the people throwing tomatoes at you in the community … and asking them to be part of the conversation,” he said at the recent homeless summit. “If you come into the conversation with data and best practices, then you start at a really good place if the people you’re communicating with will meet you there.”

Going forward, Bradley said she expects pressure on the shelter system to stabilize as migrants who are currently homeless obtain work permits and find housing. However, she doubts homelessness can significantly decline with so many apartments and homes are unaffordable.

“At least five years, we’re going to be in this housing crisis,” she said. “What we really have to do is we have to produce housing … that is long-term affordable.”