POLITICS

Annual U.S. Homeless Count Shows Tiny Decline

Looks like the government will fall short of its goal to end veteran homelessness this year.
Chronic homelessness in the U.S. declined an estimated 22 percent between 2010 and 2015, but that trend slowed significa
Chronic homelessness in the U.S. declined an estimated 22 percent between 2010 and 2015, but that trend slowed significantly between 2014 and 2015, the government says.

WASHINGTON -- Homelessness declined 2 percent from last year, the federal government announced on Thursday.

On a single night in January, the government counted 564,708 Americans on the streets or in shelters, down slightly from the 578,424 counted on a single night in January 2014, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported. The homeless count has declined 11 percent since 2007. 

In 2010, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness announced a plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness in five years, which now seems like a long shot. Thursday's report said there were 47,725 homeless veterans in January 2015, down just 4 percent from the previous year. 

Yet Matthew Doherty, director of the council, sounded an optimistic note. 

"Because the data is 10 months old, it doesn't even reflect the progress that has been made this year as communities have been putting a very large effort to the end-of-the year goal of ending veteran homelessness," he said Thursday on a conference call with reporters.

Doherty pointed out that homelessness among veterans has declined 47 percent since 2010. "That tells us communities are doing a much better job of creating opportunities for veterans to leave our streets and get on a path to permanent housing," he said.

But Doherty bluntly said progress has slowed on chronic homelessness, which affected 83,170 people in January -- just 819 fewer people than in 2014. The chronically homeless are the most visible cohort of the overall homeless population: HUD defines them as individuals with disabilities who've been homeless at least a year. Doherty said lower funding levels from Congress partly explain why chronic homelessness has barely declined in the last year.

"The estimated 22 percent decline in chronic homelessness between 2010 and 2015 is really significant, but we've also seen that progress slowing," he said. "The decrease between 2104 and 2015 of only an estimated 1 percent, I think, needs to be treated as a call to action at all levels of government." 

Since the George W. Bush administration, the federal government has advocated a "housing first" approach for the chronically homeless, the idea being that local agencies should put homeless people in apartments before insisting that those with drug or alcohol addictions get clean and sober while they're still on the street. The approach has had some success, but it hasn't exactly caught on at the local level in towns across the U.S. 

The housing department's annual "point-in-time" estimate of the homeless population misses people who might be hiding in the woods, for example, and the even greater number of Americans who might be couch-surfing or living with friends. The agency has a broader measurement of "worst case housing needs" that says 7.7 percent of Americans are in dire need of more stable housing. 

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