US homelessness declines: What's working?

More communities are focusing on providing their chronic homeless populations permanent, supportive residences. Experts say that's the path to take to in order to put a roof over every citizen's head.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
A homeless person sleeps on a 34th St. sidewalk in New York.

Chester Ross may soon be a rarity on the sidewalks of Boston.

“There’s too many homeless people out here,” says Mr. Ross, bundled in a winter jacket on Boston’s Newbury Street, holding out an emptied plastic cup from 7-Eleven where coins and crumpled dollar bills gather. Sitting with his back against a fence, he's propped a cardboard sign against his knees that reads: “I believe people help people in need and I am in need of help. Thank you, God Bless.”

As he looks down the tree-lined street in Back Bay, one of the city’s wealthiest downtown neighborhoods, he adds: “The housing is too expensive.”

But Boston may yet hold some lessons for solving homelessness. Despite being the country’s third most expensive place to rent a two-bedroom apartment at $3,210 a month, Boston has the lowest rate of unsheltered chronic homelessness in the nation at just 3 percent, with around 600 individuals experiencing long-term homelessness, like Ross.

A report released Thursday by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shows a striking reversal of the problem, with chronic homelessness declining 7 percent in the past year, marking a total 35 decline percent from the 2007 rate. The overall homelessness rate saw a 3 percent decrease, although rates in cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., were up. In each of those three cities, the homelessness rate this year saw a rise from between 6 and 21 percent.

What do some cities know that others don't?

The decreases nationwide, especially those involving chronic homelessness, come in part thanks to a push for permanent housing options rather than temporary placements that are no longer seen as a good path to getting people “back on their feet.” Communities, such as Boston, that have explored supportive, long-term options have seen more of their vulnerable citizens thrive, and some say an expansion of that plan could eradicate the issue of homelessness entirely.

“In the last decade, there has been a complete paradigm shift in how communities respond to chronic homelessness and people living on the street,” Mary Cunningham, co-director of Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, tells the Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

“Homelessness has been going down over time. There has been a significant shift toward housing first, that is, to provide people who have been on the streets for a long time, who have serious mental illness or substance abuse issues, with supportive housing and to do it instead of putting up barriers – 'let’s get you into housing first, and help you maintain your housing.' "

While that strategy is proven to work, the latest HUD report’s numbers shouldn’t be taken at face value, experts say. They fail to capture those in unsecured housing situations, such as individuals or families staying with friends or family, or spending more than half of their income on rent – two qualities that often leave people vulnerable to becoming homeless. The science behind HUD's data gathering also merits skepticism, and experts say the results are better used to predict trends than to pinpoint exact counts.

Still, experts say the nation is heading in the right direction.

“We’re really happy with the progress we’ve seen on chronic homelessness, but we still have a lot of work to do on the job,” Lindsay Knotts, the policy director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in Washington, D.C., tells the Monitor in a phone interview. She says officials need to push their efforts toward “more permanent, supportive housing for those who have the highest needs.”

Supportive housing programs provide more than just a roof over someone’s head. They’re affordable units of community-based housing with support services that are personally tailored to an individual or family’s needs in regard to physical or mental health. These have proven more likely to keep individuals out of emergency rooms and prisons, scenarios that are more costly to taxpayers than long-term housing solutions.

HUD defines "chronic homelessness" as cases where someone has either been continuously homeless for at least a year or had four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

While some cities grapple with high rates of those lacking shelter, something about Massachusetts’s model is working.

“Massachusetts has been a national leader in terms of addressing housing security and homelessness issues,” Kelly Turley, the director of legislative advocacy at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, tells the Monitor. Still, “there’s a long way to go.”

More than half of the families who applied for housing with the state were rejected on the grounds that they didn’t meet the state’s “right to shelter” criteria. These people aren’t reflected in the HUD report but are still highly vulnerable members of the state’s population.

But Massachusetts has excelled in moving people from the streets to shelter, and then toward more permanent housing, Ms. Turley says. By creating a strong, connected network of shelters, pushing affordable long-term housing solutions, and helping those in need to cover startup housing costs, like utilities, the state has managed to surge ahead of the country.

When the state focused on short-term solutions that provided families with housing for two years, they often still needed help.  

“Most people need a longer term subsidy,” Turley says. “We were pleased to see HUD kind of shift away from the short-term subsidies.”

That’s a mindset more communities and federal authorities are adopting nationally. And those long-term options are the kind of accommodation Ross hopes he and his girlfriend will receive, but their prospects remain uncertain.

The 57-year-old on the Newbury Street sidewalk says he has been homeless for three years after losing the cleaning and painting business he used to own. He usually sleeps on the street, saying he’s been robbed too many times to trust the city shelters.

“They definitely aren’t responsive enough,” Ross says of the city’s programs. While he says he and his girlfriend are at the top of the waiting list to secure an apartment set aside through the city’s affordable housing program, with a hearing on their application slated for January, he remains skeptical things will work out after so many setbacks.

“Who knows how long that’ll take,” he says.

But experts cite the continued downward trend in categories of homelessness across the board, optimistic that the issue could become one left behind in the earlier half of the 21st century.

“I think homelessness is a completely solvable problem,”  says Ms. Cunningham of the Urban Institute. “I think we know how to solve it, and a lot of it has to with our investments in housing. And that’s for all people who experience homelessness.”

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