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Proven reforms show we can beat homelessness

From an editorial published in Bloomberg News on Wednesday:

Remarkable developments are embedded within an otherwise humdrum announcement last month by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which said that the number of homeless people in the United States declined slightly in 2012, according to a count on a single night last January.

The drop of 0.4 percent to 633,782 continues a trend of improvement now lasting five years. In that time, the U.S. has reduced homelessness by 5.7 percent even as the poverty rate grew by 20 percent.

The decline shows that the country has learned something about how to address homelessness. The solution lies not in publicly sheltering the homeless for sustained periods but in ensuring that they quickly secure their own places to live.

This approach was first applied to the chronically homeless, who made up 16 percent of all cases in 2012. These individuals almost always have disabilities such as health problems or addictions. They fare poorly in conventional homeless programs, which may require compliance with the rules of an emergency shelter – such as sobriety – and, if needed, treatment for substance abuse.

The alternative strategy places the chronically homeless directly into permanent housing while also connecting them to services to address their other challenges. Most will need this support, at government expense, for life. Yet that is probably cheaper than leaving the chronically homeless on the streets, because they often end up in hospitals, detox centers or jails, all on the taxpayer’s dime. The strategy works. Having increased the number of permanent supportive housing units by 86,000, or 46 percent, since 2007, the U.S. has reduced chronic homelessness over that period by 19.3 percent.

New approaches are also being applied to the situationally homeless – families and individuals who’ve slipped into homelessness because of misfortune such as a job loss or a costly illness. Traditionally, they have gone from an emergency shelter to a transitional one, where they might spend months working to save the money for rent and moving expenses. Under a new program, authorities grant that money upfront, getting the household out of shelter quickly or sometimes even preventing a lapse into homelessness.

Once assisted, people tended to stay housed. Numerous studies showed that only about 3 percent of households served were homeless again within 12 months. Plus, costs per household were much less.

Experience over the past five years demonstrates that homelessness is not an insurmountable challenge. With the right measures, significant progress is possible.

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