There were 17 percent fewer homeless people in the United States in 2012 than in 2005 despite the worst economic crisis in 75 years, thanks primarily to federal spending to keep at-risk Americans from eviction. Four years later, those same programs are instead facing cuts that could reverse that progress.
The stimulus package from the early days of the Obama administration increased funding for federal housing and anti-homelessness programs, and the additional funds helped continue the years-long downward trend in homelessness according to poverty experts. The total homeless population fell from 763,010 in 2005 to 633,782 in 2012, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ (NAEH) analysis of state and federal data.
The so-called “chronic homeless” make up just a fifth of the total homeless population. The vast majority of homeless people have been recently evicted due to overdue bills, and tend to acquire new shelter of some kind. Data from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies suggest that many more people are at risk of getting behind and getting evicted. There is less affordable housing available than there was in 2007 but the number of “extremely low-income renters” has swollen by 2.5 million. The 2009 stimulus bill included funding for short-term assistance to fend off eviction, which helped cushion the blow of the combination of more poor renters and few cheap rental units.
Yet those same federal efforts to ease the economic pressures that put people out of their homes are now facing budget cuts. A coalition of over a dozen anti-homelessness advocacy groups staged a rally outside Congress in late July to protest the cuts, which are part of the haphazard austerity scheme known as sequestration. Sequestration has had a major impact on anti-homelessness efforts at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
While some constituencies impacted by sequestration have won carve-outs from Congress, such as business travelers whose frustration at airport delays led Congress to grant the Federal Aviation Administration unusual latitude to distribute the mandatory cuts, HUD has gotten no such relief. One estimate found that sequestration could prevent as many as 140,000 poor families from receiving rental assistance. HUD estimates that more than 100,000 homeless or formerly homeless individuals will be cut off from the department’s various programs. Cuts to public housing vouchers are expected to kick 2,000 people onto the street in Vermont alone.