Strides in fighting homelessness

The number of those chronically homeless has sharply declined, a new report says. But family homelessness may be on the rise.

Against the dreary backdrop of the foreclosure crisis and soaring food costs comes some good news on the home front: Chronic homelessness has dropped 30 percent from 2005 to 2007.

That's according to an assessment from the Interagency Council on Homelessness at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It cites two reasons. The primary one is a shift of resources on local, state, and national levels from providing emergency shelter to building what's come to be known as supportive housing. This new housing – in permanent apartments – is for homeless individuals with mental-health and addiction issues. The second reason is more mundane: the use of a much more consistent and comprehensive data collection method than in the past.

For advocates of the shift in philosophy and resources to building permanent homes, the drop represents a major success in dealing with a problem that has appeared almost intractable during the past 30 years. "This is the largest documented decrease in homelessness in our nation's history," says Philip Mangano, executive director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

But many homeless advocates, including Mr. Mangano, are also voicing a note of caution. The analysis is based on 2007 data and thus does not reflect the full impact of the current foreclosure crisis. They note that homeless shelters and food pantries across the country are reporting significant increases in the numbers of people using their services. Many of the people are families with children, a group that saw only a small decline in the report.

"Our network of food banks and homeless services are reporting their numbers are up and they're turning people away," says Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

But even Mr. Stoops credits the Bush administration for sharpening America's focus on ending homelessness. Yet he faults the administration for playing what he calls "a shell game" by cutting resources from affordable-housing programs in general while increasing funds for supportive housing for the chronically homeless.

"They're talking about ending homelessness, but at the same time they're creating more of it by cutting affordable-housing programs," Stoops says. "We need a greater investment in low-income housing in this country."

This summer, as part of legislation dealing with the foreclosure crisis, Congress also passed the National Housing Trust Fund Act to build low-income rental housing. "That's the first major affordable-housing act since 1990," Stoops says.

Homelessness policy researchers agree that a key to solving the problem is the creation of more affordable housing. But they also credit the strides made in the past five years in coping with the chronically homeless. From 2005 to 2007, an estimated 50,000 units of supportive housing became available – about the same number of fewer chronically homeless at shelters in the 2007 data.

Researchers and policymakers are now looking at the lessons learned from dealing with the chronically homeless and trying to apply them to family homelessness.

"There's a lot of policy innovation going on around family homelessness, and it's borrowing a page from the chronic handbook in that the focus is on permanent housing and housing-first strategies," says Dennis Culhane, a housing and homeless expert at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The HUD report found that an estimated 130,000 families were homeless in 2007. While that number is expected to go up because of the foreclosure crisis, advocates like Mary Cunningham, director of the Homelessness Research Institute at the National Alliance on Homelessness in Washington, say that "is a solvable number."

"We're not talking about millions here," she says. "It's a matter of prioritizing where we spend our money."

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