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Homeless Numbers Dip, But More Families Suffer

New statistics show that the overall number of homeless people in America dropped slightly last year — although the number of homeless families rose 7 percent.

The report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development comes a week before the Obama administration plans to announce the first national proposal to prevent and end homelessness.

About 1.56 million people spent at least one night in an emergency shelter in 2009, according to the HUD report. The number was 1.6 million the year before. And that was at a time of high unemployment and record high foreclosure rates.

Advocates blame the bad economy for the increase in homeless families with children — to 170,000 in 2009. And that trend worries Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

"Homelessness tends to be a lagging indicator, in the sense that people don't get foreclosed on or lose their job and go to the homeless shelter the next day," she says. "They use up their resources. They stay with friends and family. And it takes quite a while before they become homeless."

And HUD acknowledges that a lot more families were doubling and tripling up in houses last year, numbers not reflected in the new report. But HUD Assistant Secretary Mercedes Marquez says something else wasn't reflected in the report, either — the impact of $1.5 billion Congress approved last year to help prevent families from becoming homeless and to quickly rehouse those who do. That money is only starting to be spent.

"What we will see for the first time in next year's work and next year's count is the impact of that $1.5 billion on the homeless population and with families," Marquez says. She hopes the funding means the numbers will go down.

Breaking The Cycle

Marquez says what's most encouraging in this year's report is a 10 percent decline in chronic homelessness. These are individuals — often with health or substance-abuse problems — who live on the streets for long periods of time. Marquez credits a big push in cities to move these people into permanent homes.

Pathways to Housing is a nonprofit group that has been working with the Washington, D.C., government over the past two years to do just that.

"By next month, there will be a thousand people that moved off the streets of Washington, D.C., into permanent housing," says Pathways' chief operating officer, Linda Kaufman. "This is not shelter. It's not transitional housing. It's permanent housing. So we see the numbers of people on the streets of Washington, D.C., going down."

Kaufman says an annual one-night count in January found 70 people living on downtown Washington streets — half the number found in 2008.

Misplaced Attention?

Advocates expect the administration's new plan to continue this push to end chronic homelessness. But such programs are labor-intensive and costly. Not only do the chronically homeless need a roof over their heads, they need counseling and other support.

Neil Donovan, executive director of the advocacy group National Coalition for the Homeless, thinks all the attention on ending chronic homelessness might have been misplaced.

"So now what we're finding is that there's an increase in family homelessness," Donovan says. "It doesn't take a lot of analysis to figure out when you focus your time, attention and resources on a small number of the population, that it's going to have an adverse impact on others."

And he thinks family homelessness is a lot more widespread than the HUD report shows. He hopes the new national strategy, to be released June 22, will address the full scope of the problem.

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