Homeless in America: 636,017; Homeless veterans: 67,495

The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently released, The State of Homelessness in America 2012, a report that suggests that despite the fact that the number of homeless people was essentially unchanged between 2009 and 2011, there is much reason for concern. Economic and demographic indicators linked to homelessness, including doubled up people and severe housing cost burdened households, continue to be troubling.

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At the same time, the resources provided by HPRP have run out in many communities and the program will sunset entirely this fall; despite the need and proven effectiveness these resources have not been replaced. So while holding the line on homelessness between 2009 and 2011 was a major accomplishment of federal investment and local innovation, the failure to sustain this early recipe for success threatens to undermine progress now and in the future.

The State of Homelessness in America 2012 paints a picture of the homeless and extremely low income population in America.

-    The nation’s homeless population fell one percent to 636,017 people in 2011. The largest decrease was among homeless veterans, whose population declined 11 percent. The number of homeless veterans fell to 67,495 in 2011 from 75,609 in 2009.
-    The national rate of homelessness was 21 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population. The rate for veterans was 31 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans in the general population.
-    A majority of homeless people counted were in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, but nearly 4 in 10 were unsheltered:   living on the streets; or in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation. The unsheltered population increased by 2 percent to 243,701 in 2011 - the only subpopulation to increase between 2009 and 2011.
-    The number of poor households that spent more than 50 percent of their incomes on rent – defined by HUD as households that are “severely housing cost burdened” – increased by 6 percent to 6.2 million households in 2010. Three-quarters of all poor renter households experienced severe housing cost burden in 2010.
-    The “doubled up” population (low income people who live with friends, family, or other nonrelatives for economic reasons) increased by 13 percent to 6.8 million people in 2010. The doubled up population increased by more than 50 percent between 2005 and 2010.
-    The odds for a person in the general population of experiencing homelessness in the course of a year are 1 in 194. For an individual living doubled up, the odds are 1 in 12. For a released prisoner they are 1 in 13. For a young adult who has aged out of foster care, they are 1 in 11.

It is clear from the findings in the report that the risk of homelessness is present and persistent; more and more households are struggling to stay stably housed and economically secure. What is unclear is whether or not the successes from HPRP and the decreases since 2009 will hold once the program expires later this year.

Effective strategies to end homelessness are readily apparent. Prevention and rapid re-housing clearly work: this is the lesson of HPRP, a program that successfully forestalled an increase in homelessness despite the poor economy, high unemployment, and lack of affordable housing. Permanent supportive housing works to house chronically homeless people and veterans with disabilities, and continued investment will solve these problems. But in order to implement these solutions and tangibly make a difference in the lives of people in need, we must commit resources to continuing these effective strategies.  

The coming year will be a difficult one with major budget challenges facing a Congress and Administration whose political differences will only be exacerbated by the election. Jobs, economic opportunity and the middle class will certainly be major themes, and these are important to all of us. But for the one of every two Americans who are poor or low income and the nearly 700,000 who are homeless, economic issues are not only important - they are critical. As the nation moves forward, it will be essential that we meet the needs of the most vulnerable, and further that we commit ourselves also to ensure that they have the means to achieve the well-being that is our goal for all of our fellow Americans. 

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