More than 600,000 Americans are homeless on a given night, according to the latest government data, which conducts a count on a specific night in January every year. Nearly a quarter are children and a third were living in unsheltered places like parks, cars, or abandoned buildings.
The number of people who are chronically homeless, or who have been continuously homeless for more than one year or experienced at least four episodes over the last three, is over 100,000, and two-thirds go unsheltered. There were more than 57,000 homeless veterans.
The good news is that the government says the numbers have been declining overall. Homelessness declined by 4 percent compared to last year and by 9 percent since the beginning of the recession in 2007. Chronic homelessness has dropped by 25 percent since 2007 and homelessness among veterans went down by 24 percent.
But they aren’t declining everywhere, and some states actually saw huge increases. Five states — California, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas — account for more than half of the country’s homeless population, and of those three saw some of the largest upticks. Homelessness rose by 11.3 percent in New York, by 8.7 percent in Massachusetts, and by 4.5 percent in California over 2012. Other states had far larger jumps, such as a 33.1 percent increase in South Carolina and 26 percent increase in Maine. Overall, 20 states saw their rates go up compared to last year. Since 2007, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, and Washington, DC have seen increases of more than 20 percent.
Other indicators have also shown increases. The number of homeless students reached all-time high last year of more than a million, or 2 percent of the student population. The number of homeless children in Massachusetts also just hit a record high.
And a host of evidence shows that it is increasingly dangerous to be homeless. Violence against those without shelter is on the rise and news stories of homeless people who are killed for no reason have been piling up.
The progress that has been made in reducing homelessness could also stall if severe budget cuts continue. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that the automatic cuts known as sequestration will remove more than 100,000 homeless and formerly homeless people from programs. These programs have had little wiggle room to absorb the cuts without making reductions, which has led to dramatic, immediate pull backs. One small example is Triumph Treatment Services in Yakima, WA, a program many homeless people turn to in order to get back on their feet, which had to reduce its beds from 68 to 50 through June and will have to cut about two beds every month next year. Sequestration is also cutting housing vouchers to help low-income people afford rent, which means that people who are in shelters or transitional programs will be shut out of the assistance they need to get their own apartments. Even more will be denied assistance next year if sequestration continues.
Yet there are plenty of programs that have been shown to be effective at helping the homeless. Creating more shelter to help house them is much cheaper than leaving people on the streets. Some places are giving homeless people lockers for their possessions, which could help with safety and other issues they face. A truly innovative program in San Francisco offers a day-long fair where homeless people can get all of the services they need in one place without hassle or the need to find transportation to a multitude of places. Yet the things that are proven to reduce homelessness require investment at a time when budgets are being slashed.