Homelessness drops nationally, but advocates skeptical

Homelessness drops nationally, but advocates skeptical
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The number of Americans living on the streets and in shelters has dropped significantly in recent years, according to a new government report, though more than half a million people are still homeless.

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The annual survey conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in January found an estimated 549,928 homeless people across the United States. That figure is down from the 630,227 people who were homeless in January 2009, just before President Obama took office, and down from 647,000 in 2007.

The number of homeless veterans across the country has dropped almost in half since 2010, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development made a priority of getting veterans off the streets.

The Obama administration kicked off a crusade to reduce homelessness, dubbed Opening Doors, across 19 federal agencies in 2010. Matthew Doherty, who heads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said the federal government needs to redouble its spending on the effort to speed progress.

"While our continued progress reinforces that we are on the right path, the data also makes clear that we must increase the pace of that progress," Doherty said when HUD released the report.

Some advocates for the homeless question the survey's findings, which rely on groups that receive federal funding from HUD programs. Those advocates say the number of homeless Americans remains dismally high, and that few states or cities are taking the steps necessary to curtail homelessness on a long-term basis.

"We are concerned about the use of these numbers to talk about homelessness," said Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "It doesn't give an accurate picture of homelessness. What it gives is an accurate picture of the services provided through HUD."

More than half of all homeless people in the U.S. live in five states, with nearly a quarter of them in California. New York, Florida, Texas and Washington together account for 30 percent of the nation's homeless population.

But those states have also been hardest at work on reducing their homeless populations. Since 2007, California's homeless population has dropped by 15 percent, while Texas's population is down 42 percent and Florida's has declined 30 percent.

All told, 34 states have seen their homeless populations drop between 2007 and 2016, according to the HUD counts, while 16 states saw populations rise. In 18 states, the homeless population has declined by more than a quarter in the last 10 years.

The District of Columbia has seen the largest spike in its homeless population over the last decade. In January, surveyors found 3,030 homeless people in Washington, D.C., 57 percent higher than the 2007 survey. New York, Massachusetts and Hawaii have all seen homelessness rise by more than 30 percent in a decade.

States where homelessness is on the rise are also those that have most aggressively sought to get people on the streets into shelters. In Massachusetts, New York and Washington, only about 4 percent of all homeless people were not living in shelters during the January survey.

By contrast, about two-thirds of California's 118,000 homeless people were not in shelters. Other states where January temperatures tend to be well above freezing, including Hawaii, Nevada and Oregon, also shelter fewer of their homeless.

California and the government of Los Angeles have taken steps recently to reduce the number of homeless people further. In 2014, California voters authorized hundreds of millions in new bonds to build housing for homeless veterans. This month, Los Angeles voters approved spending $1.2 billion on 10,000 new housing units for the chronically homeless.

In June, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed legislation authorizing $2 billion for housing specifically for those with mental illnesses.

Some federal services that benefit the homeless have faced deep cuts in recent years. More than half a million low-income Americans will lose access to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, this year as states reimpose a three-year time limit after the recession. And Medicaid expansion, which helped cover even some housing costs for the homeless, is under threat as Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration consider repealing parts of the Affordable Care Act.

"Nowhere in the country are we really doing a good job of things, because pretty much everywhere, someone is struggling," Hustings said. "We can't ignore just the number of calls we get from families that are desperate for any kind of access to shelter."

Nationally, the number of shelter beds and transitional housing units for the homeless has grown by about a quarter in the last decade. In 2009, HUD found 640,000 beds — including transitional housing, permanent supportive housing and emergency shelter beds — set aside to aid the homeless. By 2016, that number had grown to more than 867,000.

Men, blacks and younger people are disproportionately likely to be homeless. About 60 percent of those who are homeless are men, 39 percent are African American and 31 percent are younger than 25 years old. The 217,000 women who are homeless are more likely to stay in shelters, the report found, while men are more likely to go without shelter.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development said the number of unaccompanied homeless children appeared to decline last year, to about 35,000. But the agency said it would conduct a more thorough census of homeless youth next year.