Officials: Fewer people chronically homeless

The number of chronically homeless people living in the nation's streets and shelters has dropped by about 30 percent – to 123,833 from 175,914 – between 2005 and 2007, Bush administration officials said Tuesday.

Housing officials say the statistics, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development collects each year from more than 3,800 cities and counties, may reflect better data collection and reporting and some variation in the number of communities reporting on an annual basis. But the officials attribute much of the decline to the “housing first” strategy that has been promoted by the administration and Congress, and has been increasingly adopted across the country.

In that approach, local officials place chronically homeless people into permanent shelter – apartments, halfway houses or rooms – and then focus on treating addiction and mental and health problems. HUD defines chronically homeless people as disabled individuals who have been continuously homeless for more than a year or have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

Until cities and states began adopting the program, many of those people seemed to shuttle endlessly between shelters, hospitals and the street. The “housing first” strategy has begun to stabilize that population, officials say.

“We can all be encouraged that we're making progress in reducing chronic street homelessness,” HUD Secretary Steven Preston said in a statement. “But we must also recognize that we have a long way to go to find a more lasting solution for those struggling with homelessness every day.”

Advocates for the homeless criticized the Bush administration's focus on the chronically homeless, saying that homeless families and those who live on the margins – in motels or doubled up with friends and family – are being left out.

“We should be focused on ending homelessness for everybody, not just a small segment of the homeless population,” said Michael Stoops, the acting director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who argues that additional resources are needed. Stoops also said he and other advocates remained concerned that cities and states were undercounting the homeless.

HUD collects the statistics as part of its Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. The report said that 1.6 million people experienced homelessness and found shelter between Oct. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2007. Individuals accounted for 70 percent of the people living in shelters during that time. The rest were families with children. About 13 percent of all homeless adults living in shelters were veterans.

Critics of the annual report often complain that it undercounts the homeless because it omits those in precarious living situations such as families living in campgrounds or individuals doubled up with friends or relatives.

Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of this year's report, acknowledged that “there are a lot of people in tough housing situations who don't get counted.” He said the government needed a standard measure and asked communities to count people living in shelters and on the street.

He described the decline in chronic homelessness as “pretty remarkable.”

Culhane said Congress and the Bush administration had pushed local communities to focus on finding solutions for the chronically homeless, who accounted for about half of the people living in the nation's shelters in 2000. HUD has financed the development of between 10,000 and 12,000 new units of supported housing targeted for that population every year over the past four years, he said.