The $1.5 billion in stimulus funds, called the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) offered communities significant new resources to curb homelessness resulting from the recession. The AHAR reports that HPRP funds prevented and ended homelessness for an estimated 690,000 people in the reporting year, and the program also decreased the length of time people in some areas experienced homelessness. In suburban and rural communities, the average length of stay in an emergency family shelter declined from 62 days to 40 days. This is important not only for the families, whose experience of homelessness is briefer, but for communities which are better able to meet people’s crisis shelter needs; if beds turn over faster, more beds are available.

Although homelessness overall held steady, the story changes when looking at different subpopulations. The number of sheltered homeless persons in families increased by 6 percent from 2009 to 2010; the percentage rises to 20 percent when comparing 2007 to 2010. The annual prevalence of homelessness in suburban and rural areas increased by 16 percent from 2009 to 2010; the percentage rises to 57 percent when comparing 2007 to 2010.

Clearly, the work is far from over. Homelessness continues to affect an alarming number of people in the United States. Unfortunately, HPRP expires in 2012 and there will not be assistance for those hundreds of thousands of households that are facing homelessness. The federal government is considering deep cuts to domestic discretionary spending which will affect poverty programs and social services across the board. State and local governments have already begun to make deep cuts. 

An efficient homelessness system supplied with significant emergency resources staved off a new wave of homelessness in 2009 and 2010. But with as high unemployment continues, housing prices rise, and safety net programs are shredded, this trend is likely to shift direction; there will be more homeless people and fewer resources to help them.  

In the face of growing need and deep budget cuts, an important principle must be to protect the most vulnerable. Certainly, homeless people meet that criterion. The homeless assistance system, in which federal resources leverage significant state, local and private dollars, is the ultimate safety net for the most vulnerable people; there is nothing beneath it. The programs work, they are solution oriented, cost effective and humane. A decision to support these programs and the vulnerable populations they serve would not only be an ethical decision, but a smart one.

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