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Homelessness and the President's Budget: the Good news and the Bad

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This post was written by Alliance President and CEO Nan Roman with Alliance Communications Associate Emanuel Cavallaro.

On Tuesday, April 9, the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Homeless Research Institute released The State of Homelessness in America 2013, which looks at the national and state level trends, as well as the economic and housing factors that drive homelessness.

The State of Homelessness 2013 contains both good news and bad. The good news is that between 2011 and 2012 homelessness did not go up, despite the challenging economy. We counted 634,000 people, nationally, which meant that, for every 10,000 Americans, 20 people were experiencing homelessness. Overall, that's about 2,200 people fewer than the previous year.

The bad news is that the factors that drive homelessness have worsened. At its root, homelessness is a result of an inability to afford housing, and poor people and poor communities face tremendous challenges. Between 2010 and 2011, despite a decrease in unemployment, poverty increased, median incomes declined, and the rental market continued to tighten due to increases in renters and rising rents. That doesn't bode well for the future.

Homelessness is a lagging indicator, which means that it follows on the heels of other economic trends. So it stands to reason that homelessness in 2012 should have increased, but it didn't, at least not at the national level, where we saw real and significant improvements in homelessness among veterans and chronically homeless individuals.

We at the Alliance attribute this progress to federal investment in programs and evidence-based strategies designed to combat homelessness. In 2011, we were benefiting from the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which was part of the federal stimulus. That program helped 1.3 million households either get out of homelessness faster than they would have on their own, or avoid falling into homelessness altogether.

In 2011, investments in permanent supportive housing led to a 6.8 percent decline among chronically homeless individuals, traditionally the hardest to serve homeless population. And an interagency effort between the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development to provide housing for veterans and their families contributed to a 7 percent decline in veteran homelessness.

The picture of homelessness at the state level is less straightforward. In 28 states and the District of Columbia homelessness actually increased. And while homelessness among veterans and chronic homeless individuals declined nationally, in several states it went up.

In all but 11 states, the number of people living "doubled up" increased, and it went up 10 percent nationally. "Doubled up" people are those who are poor and living with a family member or friend for financial reasons. It is the most common prior living situation of people who become homeless.

So it is good news that homelessness didn't go up, but there is cause to worry for the future. While worsening economic and housing conditions threaten the progress we have made, recent budget cuts under sequestration could mean less investment in solutions that the report shows have led to declines in homelessness; solutions like permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and housing and services for homeless veterans.

The day after we published our State of Homelessness report, President Obama released his proposed budget. Under that budget, HUD programs that provide homeless assistance through rapid re-housing for homeless families and permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals would be funded at $302 million more than the previous year.

And $1.4 billion would go to the VA for homeless assistance programs, including $300 million for rapid re-housing and prevention activities specifically targeted at veterans and their families.

The State of Homelessness report shows that it is just this kind of federal investment in effective strategies that produces real reductions in homelessness. Without it, homelessness could worsen and the progress we have made during the past several years could be erased.

Do we really want that to happen?

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