Economy

Homelessness Is Falling — But Not Fast Enough

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Homelessness fell by more than 2 percent at the beginning of this year compared to last, or 13,344 fewer people, according to the latest data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But in the annual point-in-time count of the country’s homeless population in January of 2014, there were still 578,424 homeless people. Just over 30 percent of those were unsheltered, living on the street or in parks, cars, or abandoned buildings, although the decline in homelessness was driven by a 10 percent drop in people living in these conditions.

homelssnessintheunitedstates

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

The government launched its Opening Doors initiative aimed at ending homelessness in 2010, with the goal of ending and preventing chronic homelessness — when someone has at least four episodes over three years or has a disability and has been continuously homeless for more than a year — and veteran homelessness by 2015. It also has the goal of ending homelessness among families, youth, and children by 2020.

Chronic homelessness dropped by 3 percent over the last year and has fallen by 21 percent since the launch of Opening Doors in 2010. Homelessness among veterans fell by 11 percent over the last year and has fallen 33 percent since 2010. Homelessness among families fell by 3 percent over the last year and by 11 percent since 2010.

Yet as of January, there were still nearly 50,000 homeless veterans around the country. More than 84,000 individuals were chronically homeless, with nearly two-thirds going without shelter. More than 216,000 people living in families were homeless, including more than 194,000 children. Another 45,205 homeless children and youth were homeless and all by themselves, about 8 percent of the overall homeless population. Nearly a quarter of homeless people are children under the age of 18.

In combatting homelessness, the government credits the successes it has experienced with a focus on “housing first,” or getting homeless people into a home and then addressing other issues like mental illness, health problems, and addiction. That was also the tactic employed by Phoenix and Salt Lake City, the first two cities to end chronic homelessness among veterans.

But the country could wipe out homelessness among all populations now if it chose to. Mass homelessness first emerged in the 1980s alongside the evaporation of affordable housing: In 1970, there was a surplus of 300,000 affordable units, but by 2009 there was a 5.5 million shortage.

One proposed plan for filling in that gap would be to fund the National Housing Trust Fund, created in 2008 to build affordable housing but never funded, with money saved by modifying the mortgage interest tax deduction, which mostly benefits the wealthy. That could create more than 1 million affordable housing units over 10 years. Another would be to give rental assistance to everyone whose income is at or below 30 percent of area median income with a reformed voucher program. Today, just one in four eligible households actually gets rental assistance even as rents keep rising. The cost of increasing vouchers would be $22.5 billion, but it would effectively end homelessness.

The high price of action on homelessness would likely be counteracted by savings. It is much more costly to leave people without housing than to help them find it. For example, it costs Florida $31,065 a year per chronic homeless person in medical and incarceration costs, yet just $10,051 to give that person housing. A shelter in Colorado will cost less than $17,000 per person compared to the $43,240 price tag of leaving him outside, while an apartment complex for the homeless in North Carolina has saved $1.8 million. Preventing homelessness in the first place is also cost effective: a program that focuses on this tactic in Massachusetts, HomeStart, spends about $700 to keep a family in its home, compared to the $30,000 the state would spend putting them up in a motel.