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WASHINGTON, D.C. — On a single night last January, 633,782 people were homeless in the United States, largely unchanged from the year before. In releasing HUD’s latest national estimate of homelessness, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan cited as hopeful that even during a historic housing and economic downturn, local communities are reporting significant declines in the number of homeless veterans and those experiencing long-term chronic homelessness.
HUD’s annual ‘point-in-time’ estimate seeks to measure the scope of homelessness over the course of one night every January. Based on data reported by more than 3,000 cities and counties, last January’s estimate reveals a marginal decline in overall homelessness (-0.4 percent) along with a seven percent drop in homelessness among veterans and those experiencing long-term or chronic homelessness.
Donovan said, “We continue to see a stable level of homelessness across our country at a time of great stress for those at risk of losing their housing. We must redouble our efforts to target our resources more effectively to help those at greatest risk. As our nation’s economic recovery takes hold, we will make certain that our homeless veterans and those living on our streets find stable housing so they can get on their path to recovery.”
“This report continues a trend that clearly indicates we are on the right track in the fight to end homelessness among veterans. While this is encouraging news, we have more work to do and will not be satisfied until no veteran has to sleep on the street,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “What success we have achieved is directly attributable to the strong leadership from the President and hard work by all of our federal, state, and community partners who are committed to ending veteran homelessness.”
During one night in late January of 2012, local planners or “Continuums of Care” across the nation conducted a one-night count of their sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations. These one-night ‘snapshot’ counts are then reported to HUD as part of state and local grant applications. While the data reported to HUD does not directly determine the level of a community’s grant funding, these estimates, as well as full-year counts, are crucial in understanding the scope of homelessness and measuring progress in reducing it.
The Obama Administration’s strategic plan to end homelessness is called Opening Doors — a roadmap by 19 federal member agencies of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness along with local and state partners in the public and private sectors. The plan puts the country on a path to end veterans and chronic homelessness by 2015; and to ending homelessness among children, family, and youth by 2020. The Plan presents strategies building upon the lesson that mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs must be fully engaged and coordinated to prevent and end homelessness.
The plan, and its success, hinges on widespread implementation of an approach to preventing and ending homelessness known as Housing First: a strategy whose fundamental premise is that homeless assistance programs must respond, first, to the most urgent need of every homeless household — permanent housing. Then, around this housing must be provided the supports the individual or family needs to address other challenges in their lives. The reductions today are the result of two elements of the Housing First approach.
First, the decline in veteran homelessness in particular is attributed to the close collaboration between HUD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on a joint program called HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH). Research has demonstrated that for those who have been homeless the longest, often living on our streets for years at a time, permanent supportive housing — housing coupled with supportive services to address mental illness, substance addiction, and other challenges — not only ends homelessness for these vulnerable individuals, but also saves the taxpayer money by interrupting a costly cycle of emergency room visits, detoxes, and even jail terms. To date, HUD-VASH has provided more than 42,000 homeless veterans permanent supportive housing through rental vouchers provided by HUD along with supportive services and case management by VA. The national estimate announced today reveal a particularly large decrease in the number of homeless veterans — more than 7 percent.
The reductions reported today are also attributed in part to the impact of HUD’s $1.5 billion Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), a program designed to assist individuals and families confronted by a sudden economic crisis. Funded through the Recovery Act, HPRP spared more 1.3 million persons from homelessness by offering them short-term rent assistance, security and utility deposits, and moving expenses. HPRP and the SSVF program reflect a Housing First approach inasmuch as it epitomizes the notion that the best interaction a family can have with the emergency response homeless system, such as shelters, is none at all, and if they have to enter the homeless system, the goal of that system should be to get them back into permanent housing as quickly as possible.