AFTER months of unremitting bad news about homelessness in America, suddenly there are two kinds of news - bad and good. The bad news is that homelessness is rising in America's cities and that, unless action is taken, it is likely to rise further as the recession deepens.
An average of 17 percent more homeless people sought emergency shelter this year than last in 30 large cities surveyed by the United States Conference of Mayors.
All but one of the cities are expected to have still more people needing shelter this coming year according to the survey, made public Wednesday.
Perhaps most ominous for the future, the public is losing sympathy with the homeless. Four of every five cities reported that public attitudes were changing, and in slightly over half the change was clearly negative. In about one-third the change had both negative and positive implications.
The good news is that the federal government has taken action to try to begin rolling back homelessness. A new, privately funded program has been announced. It is intended to get some homeless and other low-income people into permanent, low-cost apartments instead of the transitory shelters now generally in use.
Numbers will be small at first - apartments for 600 low-income people, most of whom will be from the homeless.
Estimates of the number of homeless nationwide range widely, from about 300,000 to 3 million.
The new program also will provide the 600 people initially housed with several services that they are likely to need, including child care, job training, and counseling.
Initial funds for the program come from the Federal National Mortgage Association, popularly known as Fannie Mae, which is investing $10 million.
Backers of the program, announced Tuesday by Jack Kemp, United States secretary of Housing and Urban Development, say they hope that additional private funds will flow into the project.
For some time Secretary Kemp has been seeking ways of involving the private sector in the effort to provide more permanent housing for the poor, including the homeless.
Over the years numerous experts have questioned the concept of coping with homelessness by providing only temporary shelter, as most communities do. They have pointed out that this approach does not meet the fundamental need of many of the homeless - an affordable place to live permanently.
Now the government is undertaking just such an approach.
The need for such housing is made clear by an annual study made by the US Conference of Mayors annual.
Twenty-nine of the 30 cities surveyed reported that the main cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing for people with little money. Other major contributing factors are substance abuse, mental illness, and unemployment.
At the same time that homelessness was increasing by an average of 17 percent this year, the number of emergency beds in shelters went up only 3 percent. One predictable result: 16 percent of the homeless who sought shelter could not get it.
The study profiled the homeless in the 30 cities. Half of them are single men, and nearly one-fourth are children. Nearly half are black and one-third white. One-fourth are mentally ill, and slightly over one-third are substance abusers. One quarter are working either part or full time.
All the cities use both federal and city government money to provide shelters and other services for the homeless; most also use state funds and money raised privately in the community.
More than three-fourths of the cities surveyed said their economies were slowing down, as is the national economy.
The slowdown is likely to have two results: an increase in the number of homeless, and a decrease in the amount of money cities and other levels of government can raise in taxes and therefore have available to spend.
Not surprisingly, the slowing economy and rising homelessness are also mirrored in an increase in the number of people who have sought emergency food. That's 22 percent higher in the 30 cities this year than it was 12 months ago, the Conference of Mayors survey found.
Although demand for food shot up, the capacity of emergency food assistance facilities increased very slightly: They had only 4 percent more money or food to work with this year than last. In seven out of every eight cities, facilities simply had to turn away the hungry.
In three-fourths of the cities hungry people relied on emergency suppliers for a protracted period of time.
The chief reason given for the increase in hunger was difficulty obtaining jobs. Other contributing factors included poverty itself and lack of affordable housing for the poor.