The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2015 report on homelessness in the United States, released on Thursday, found that the number of people living without adequate housing is declining, as it has every year since 2010. But even so, at the current rate, homelessness will continue in the United States for another 40 years.
Between January 2014 and January 2015, the number of people experiencing homelessness decreased by 11,742, a decline of 2 percent. Homelessness among youth and veterans decreased at faster rates. A number of cities and states across the country have even ended chronic homelessness among veterans.
But the HUD report also found that 564,708 individuals in the wealthiest nation remain homeless. Though the number of homeless people has declined every year but one since 2007, the current pace of improvement hardly reflects the emergency nature of being homeless.
The recent five-year average shows that homelessness is shrinking at a rate of 14,474 individuals each year. If that pace continues, homelessness won’t be eliminated until 2054.
CREDIT: The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress
There are a number of things that Congress could do to accelerate the fight against homelessness. Perhaps the most important would be to increase housing funds for low-income individuals and families. In recent years, Congress cut billions from housing assistance funds, such as Section 8 housing vouchers. Though some of that funding has been restored, increasing it would significantly help low-income individuals afford housing.
Boosting funding for mental illness treatment would also have a major impact. More than one-fifth of homeless individuals suffer from a severe mental illness, a massive hinderance to their recovery if left untreated.
States could also adopt new policies to fight homelessness. These possibilities run the gamut from increasing funding for food stamps (or at least restoring cuts) to expanding Medicaid in the 20 states that have yet to do so.
Even local lawmakers could help fight homelessness by requiring developers to set aside more affordable housing — 82 percent of new housing developments are luxury apartments for the wealthy — or rolling back measures that criminalize homelessness like panhandling bans. The Obama administration recently announced that it will penalize municipalities that criminalize homelessness when doling out federal funding, a move that could push local governments to shift resources towards more productive tactics.
There will always be people who face evictions or financial emergencies that send them to the streets. What is achievable, though, is to ensure that their homeless stint is as short as possible. In fact, before the 1980s, homelessness was far closer to a rounding error than the epidemic it is today. And unless more resources are devoted to policies like affordable housing and expanded healthcare for the poor, reports on homelessness in American will continue for decades to come.