New York Times, July 30, 2008: U.S. Reports Drop in Homeless Population

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

Housing officials say the statistics, which are collected annually from more than 3,800 cities and counties, may reflect better data collection and some variation in the number of communities reporting. But officials also attribute much of the decline to a policy shift promoted by Congress and the administration that has focused federal and local resources on finding stable housing for homeless people suffering from drug addiction, mental illness or physical disabilities, long deemed the hardest to help in the homeless population.

Under the strategy, known as “housing first,” local officials have over the last eight years increasingly placed the chronically homeless into permanent shelter apartments, halfway houses or rooms and provided them with services for drug addiction, mental illness and health problems.

Until cities and states began adopting the plan, many homeless people seemed to shuttle endlessly between emergency shelters, hospitals and the street. Officials and housing experts say the “housing first” program has begun to stabilize the chronically homeless population, which the administration defines 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.

Researchers who study the issue say they believe the decline is the most significant in years.

“We can all be encouraged that we۪re making progress in reducing chronic street homelessness,” the housing secretary, Steven C. Preston, said. “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.”

Some advocates for the homeless criticized the administration۪s 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 falling behind.

In New York City, for instance, the number of chronically homeless people dropped to 5,233 in 2007 from 7,002 in 2005, statistics show. The total number of homeless people increased to 50,372 from 48,154 during that time.

Nationally, chronically homeless people account for about 18 percent of the homeless population.

“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, an advocacy group based here, who said homeless families needed additional resources.

Mr. Stoops said he remained concerned that cities and states were undercounting the homeless. And he said that federal cuts in financing for affordable housing programs had left the country unprepared for the waves of people struggling to find housing after losing homes to foreclosure.

But Martha R. Burt, a research associate at the Urban Institute here who has studied homelessness for more than two decades, described the decline in chronic homelessness as “nothing short of phenomenal.”

“These are the people who everyone thought were hopeless: the undeserving poor,” Ms. Burt said. “They۪re not hopeless. You can get them into housing, and for the most part they will not go back into the street if they have the right supportive services.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development collects the statistics as part of its Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Nationally, the total number of homeless people counted on a single night in January the measure used to count homeless families on the streets and in shelters dropped to 666,295 in 2007, from 754,147 in 2005.

The report said that 1.6 million people spent time in homeless shelters between Oct. 1, 2006 and Sept. 30, 2007. Seventy percent of those people were individuals; the rest were families with children. About 13 percent of all homeless adults living in shelters were veterans.

Dennis P. Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of this year۪s report, acknowledged that “a lot of people in tough housing situations don۪t get counted.” Mr. Culhane said the government needed a standard measure and counted only people living in shelters or on the street.

Mr. Culhane attributed much of the decline in chronic homelessness to the efforts of Congress, administration officials and local communities. In 1999, Congress told HUD to direct about one-third of its financing for homelessness to permanent housing.

Meanwhile, federal and local officials embraced the focus on the chronically homeless. HUD has financed the development of 10,000 to 12,000 new units of supported housing for that population every year over the past four years, Mr. Culhane said.

“We۪re moving in the right direction, without a doubt,” he said.

Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, said more money was needed for homeless families and children.

“While this is great news,” Ms. Waters said, “we cannot rest because there is much that remains to be done.”

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