On a single night last January, an estimated 610,042 people around the United States were homeless. About two-thirds were living in shelters, while the rest were on the streets — sleeping on sidewalks, on benches, in cars.
The one bright spot? This number appears to have dropped considerably in recent years— falling 9 percent since 2007, even amid a severe recession. That's according to a new survey put out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development:
That drop continued last year: The number of homeless people in the U.S. fell 4 percent since 2012 — a change that meant there were 24,000 fewer homeless people overall. The biggest drop came among people with families (a seven percent drop, or 17,206 people) and the unsheltered (a 12 percent drop, or 28,283 people).
These "point-in-time" estimates certainly aren't perfect — they're only a snapshot of a single night, and they can miss people. But they can help give a sense for the overall trends. And on that score, homelessness does seem to be dropping.
Why homelessness is falling
What's behind the overall drop? Some experts have given credit to a concerted push against homelessness by both the federal government and local communities — a push that began with President George W. Bush in 2005 and continued with the current administration.
Those early initiatives focused on the chronically homeless — people who have been continuously homeless for more than one year or have repeatedly found themselves on the street. For years, experts had long debated how to deal with this population. Do they need more mental-health programs? Substance-abuse treatment?
The Bush administration's solution was simple: Just give people a place to live. For free. (See this 2005 Mother Jones article by Douglas McCray on how it all worked.) And the results were fairly dramatic. The number of chronically homeless people in the United States fell 30 percent between 2005 and 2007. And the recession didn't stop that trend: Chronic homelessness has fallen a further 25 percent since 2007.
The Obama administration largely kept that program in place and launched a new initiative in 2010, the Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, which aimed to bring the number of homeless people down to zero. So, for example, the Veterans Administration made big policy changes and began giving housing vouchers to tens of thousands of veterans, with no strings attached. The result? Homelessness among veterans has declined 24 percent since 2009.
All told, overall U.S. homelessness has dropped 6 percent since the new federal plan was launched.
Why the drop may not last
Progress has been uneven around the country. In states such as Massachusetts, New York and Missouri, homelessness has actually risen more than 20 percent since 2007. Washington, D.C., has seen a 29 percent increase in homelessness since the financial crisis, or 1,545 people.
There were huge increases in homelessness in some cities last year. Los Angeles saw a 27 percent jump in homelessness in 2012, while New York had a 13 percent increase. (New York City's homelessness is now at levels last seen during the Great Depression.) Those two cities alone account for nearly one-fifth of all homelessness in the nation.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has also warned that budget cuts from sequestration could further strap various housing programs. This year, the agency is set to announce a 5 percent cut in federal funding for programs to help the homeless, due to budget constraints.
Over at Think Progress, Bryce Covert has a helpful survey of some of the programs that might be affected:
The progress that has been made in reducing homelessness could also stall if severe budget cuts continue. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that the automatic cuts known as sequestration will remove more than 100,000 homeless and formerly homeless people from programs. These programs have had little wiggle room to absorb the cuts without making reductions, which has led to dramatic, immediate pull backs.
One small example is Triumph Treatment Services in Yakima, WA, a program many homeless people turn to in order to get back on their feet, which had to reduce its beds from 68 to 50 through June and will have to cut about two beds every month next year.
Sequestration is also cutting housing vouchers to help low-income people afford rent, which means that people who are in shelters or transitional programs will be shut out of the assistance they need to get their own apartments. Even more will be denied assistance next year if sequestration continues.
Related: The New Yorker's Ian Frazier recently wrote an in-depth report on homelessness in New York City.