Obama’s Chief Of Staff Spent Thursday Night Counting Homeless People

CREDIT: AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough

President Obama’s chief of staff quietly joined the group that canvassed the homeless living in San Francisco last Thursday night so the president could hear more about how the city is combating homelessness from a first-hand perspective. The group was part of an effort in cities across the country this month to send out volunteer teams to count their homeless populations as part of the annual Point-in-Time count.

With little fanfare or press attention, Denis McDonough joined Mayor Ed Lee, the city’s Human Services Agency Director Trent Rhorer, West Coast Coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Katy Miller, and other volunteers. It was the first time such a high-ranking official from the White House had been part of the city’s count. The group counted 144 people living in eight square blocks within an hour and a half.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” McDonough told SF Gate. “What I see here, what we just walked through, this is a problem. But this is the same sort of challenge we face all over the country.”

Every year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development recruits volunteers for Point-in-Time counts to get a snapshot of the problem, quantifying the population while asking questions about how long those they find have been homeless, whether they are veterans, if they have medical conditions, and why they are homeless. The answers help determine where progress is being made and where money should be allocated moving forward.

Last year’s count found that there were 578,424 homeless people across the country, a 2 percent decline compared to the year before. A bit over 30 percent of those people go unsheltered.

The government launched Opening Doors in 2010, an initiative with the goal of ending and preventing homelessness among different groups. The plan is to end chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness by the end of this year and end it for families, children, and youth by 2020. The 2014 Point-in-Time count showed a 3 percent drop in chronic homelessness over the year before, an 11 percent drop in veteran homelessness, and a 3 percent decline in family homelessness. But there were still nearly 50,000 homeless vets, more than 84,000 chronically homeless individuals, and 216,000 homeless families.

Some cities have made significant progress: Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and New Orleans have ended forms of homelessness among veterans.

Efforts to end homelessness could move much faster if there were significantly more money for affordable housing. In 1970, when mass homelessness like we see today wasn’t yet a problem, there was as a surplus of 300,000 affordable housing units. By 2009 there was a 5.5 million shortage. The government just took a tiny step forward on that front by allowing money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, an estimated $325 million in grants, to flow into the National Housing Trust Fund starting in 2016. While the sum is small, it’s the first time money has been put in the fund, which was created in 2008, to help finance the construction of affordable housing.