Report: US homelessness declined by 3 percent this year

While homelessness continues to spike in cities where the cost of living is high, the national rate has continuously dropped, leading officials to believe they've found the right ways to address the crisis.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Lantz Rowland poses in front of his tent outside of Seattle in 2015. While the national rate of homelessness fell in 2016, Seattle saw a 6 percent increase.

The national rate of homelessness saw a significant decline in the past year, but several cities are still grappling with higher rates amid rising housing costs.

Cities and the federal government have tried, sometimes without much success, to alleviate issues of homelessness and housing insecurity for years, and the number of homeless individuals and families have decreased since 2007. On an average night in 2016, 550,000 people were homeless across the nation, which was a 3 percent decrease from 2015, according to a new report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development obtained by NPR and the Los Angeles Times. While officials noted that the drop showed progress across all demographics – families, the chronically homeless, and veterans – their findings showed that certain cities still have work to do to catch up.

In Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Dallas, and Seattle, all cities where housing costs have soared, the number of homeless people increased by rates between 6 and 21 percent.

"There's no doubt that the lack of affordable housing is the big driver in our homeless numbers," Norm Suchar, who directs HUD's homeless assistance programs, told NPR.

But high costs of living weren’t the lone factor determining a city’s status. In New York, the nation’s second priciest metropolitan area following San Francisco, homelessness dropped by 2.4 percent, thanks to aggressive, sweeping policies intended to eradicate homelessness among veterans.

President Obama’s administration has worked to eliminate homelessness among that group, hoping to attain the goal by the end of 2015. While billions of dollars in federal funding helped to slash the rate by 17 percent this year and moved thousands of veterans into permanent, supportive housing, there were still around 39,000 that remained homeless as of January.

Los Angeles, the city with the highest rate of critically homeless people – those living on the streets, in tents, or in cars rather than shelters – also has about 3,000 unaccompanied homeless youths, the highest number in the nation. Still, L.A. saw a drop in the number of homeless veterans and families, indicating that the city is taking steps, albeit smaller ones, toward solutions.

“In Los Angeles, there’s a lot of very good stuff happening,” Mr. Suchar told the Los Angeles Times. “The work on family homelessness is impressive ... certainly they are focusing on single adults but clearly not showing progress yet.”

The report does not include the number of families who are house insecure, spending more than half of their income on rent or staying with other family members and friends. These individuals are often at risk for becoming homeless.

While the issue has challenged cities for decades, experts say they’re getting closer to understanding the best solutions to the crisis. Investing in permanent housing has had a dramatic impact on the numbers, but has also pulled from transitional housing options. Some say officials should lend more funding to transitional housing, which has served as a proven way to support individuals as they try to change their own situations.

But officials are optimistic they can continue to tackle the issue going forward.

"We have a pretty good understanding of what the solutions to homelessness are," Suchar told NPR.

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